National analysts and media members break down the key storylines and matchups of Sunday's Bills-Bengals AFC Divisional matchup.
Brooke Pyror and Seth Walder | ESPN : An emotional game under different circumstances and stakes, but filled with the same storylines
Sunday's exciting showdown will be filled with emotions after what happened the last time these two teams met. S Damar Hamlin, who is recovering well, will be at the forefront of both team's minds when they take the field on Sunday. So, what should fans watch for? "The circumstances and stakes are different this time around, but the storylines remain the same."
Why the Bills will win: "The Bills' exceptional play over the course of the season is a much more important indicator for their next game than their struggles against the Dolphins in the wild-card round. And the Bills were awfully good in the regular season. Both of these offenses are led by exceptional quarterbacks, and each has an elite-tier wide receiver.
But there's one key difference here, and that's the offensive line. While Allen will have time to throw -- and is the better rusher if he chooses to scramble -- the Bengals' O-line is banged up. Left tackle Jonah Williams left Sunday's wild-card game against the Ravens and didn't return. And frankly, Cincinnati's line wasn't particularly good when healthy. That means Buffalo's Greg Rousseau & Co. will likely be in the backfield disrupting Burrow and the Bengals' pass game.
And just in general, the Bills have the defensive edge here thanks in part to strong linebacker play from Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds. With a slight advantage on both sides of the ball and the game being played on their home turf, the Bills are big favorites." — Pryor & Walder
Why the Bengals will win: "The Bills might have been the better team in the regular season. But could the Bengals be the better squad right now? Cincinnati didn't have Chase for part of the season, and star pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson missed a few games. The Bills, meanwhile, were bolstered by a superstar pass-rusher they no longer have in injured Von Miller. And for as good as Allen was in the regular season, he did lead all quarterbacks in turnovers.
Add in Buffalo struggling to pull away from a Miami team that was starting its third-string quarterback, and the Bengals might just have the edge." — Pryor & Walder
Ted Nguyen | The Athletic: Bills QB option game vs. the Bengals' defense is key matchup
"The Bills have thus far seemed reluctant to use Allen in the run game as much as they did last season. They could be taking a more cautious approach after his elbow injury in Week 9. By my count, they only called two true option or designed QB rush plays against the Dolphins. The first led to a 12-yard James Cook touchdown in the first quarter, and the other resulted in a 12-yard Allen run on third-and-8 in the third quarter.
The Bills will now face a much better pass defense in the Bengals, and if the Buffalo passing game continues to be out of sync, the Bills might not have a choice but to bust out the quarterback run game to move the ball efficiently. If the Bills do so, the Bengals will have to do a better job of playing assignment football than they did in the wild-card round." — Nguyen
Cody Benjamin | CBS Sports : Biggest questions surrounding the Bills and the Bengals
For the Bills: "Can Josh Allen protect the ball?"
"Buffalo would not be where it is today without Allen's gunslinging. But more thanPatrick Mahomes in Kansas City and Joe Burrow in Cincinnati, Allen's physical gifts and play style invite risk. Whereas Mahomes' fluidity makes off-script plays look designed and Burrow's vision makes for reliable crunch-time production, No. 17 in Buffalo is more liable to put his body -- and the ball -- on the line by trusting his imposing arm and frame over what the defense is giving. Since his 2020 breakout, he's totaled 40 turnovers (31 interceptions, nine fumbles lost) in 36 games, including playoffs." — Benjamin
For the Bengals: "Can the offensive line survive another loss?"
"Joe Burrow advanced to the Super Bowl last season despite a shoddy front, and now he might have to do it again. Cincinnati has coped OK without a string of injured starters, including right tackle La'el Collins and right guard Alex Cappa. But now left tackle Jonah Williams is "week-to-week" with a dislocated kneecap, and Burrow could be without three of his regular blockers. Deep in the playoffs, against penetrating fronts, that spells potential trouble for a QB who thrives not by eluding pressure but beating it to the punch with quick decisions. The Ravens got after him on Super Wild Card Weekend, and more heat could be coming." — Benjamin
Arif Hasan | Pro Football Network : Divisional Round power rankings have Bills at No. 3 and Bengals at No. 5
No. 3 Bills
"They've been incredible, and Allen can produce some of the best plays in the league when paired with Diggs. But on top of that, they've improved their running game over the past several years. Allen still plays a big role in their rushing production, but they've been able to offload a good chunk of it onto an increasingly useful running back corps. They can win with a variety of approaches in the passing game and can tailor their offenses to what hurts opposing defenses more. That kind of tailoring is difficult to find across the NFL and it gives them extraordinary flexibility." — Hasan
As for defense, Hasan looks at how their depth has been able come up big when injuries made for spotty availability at various positions.
"Those injuries have hurt them, but they still get phenomenal performances out of Tre'Davious White, Matt Milano and Jordan Poyer. The fact that they can continue to rely on players like Dean Marlowe or Taron Johnson to fill in the gaps allows them to paper over problems that would collapse other teams." – Hasan
No. 5 Bengals
"They've even demonstrated resiliency as they've lost members of their offensive line or receiving corps and have found ways to produce in spite of those concerns. They can throw deep just as well as the Kansas City Chiefs or the Tagovailoa Dolphins but have chosen a slightly more restrained passing game. But when moments require it of them, they have the ability to dig out of tough moments better than anyone and can trust their receivers to win "perfectly covered snaps" as well as anyone." – Hasan
The injury bug that was struck the Bills roster throughout the season has made its way to the Bengals' roster – especially their defense who Hasan thinks "have been one of the most underrated units all year."
"A big part of that has been the duo of Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson, who have been great pass rushers. Hubbard might have earned the highlight of the postseason with his 98-yard fumble return against Baltimore, but he's been productive all season. The real stars of that defense are in the back seven, however. Mike Hilton might be the best slot cornerback in the NFL, and he's certainly the best blitzing corner. They also have had some extremely high-level play from Jessie Bates III, who has emerged from a cover-only safety his rookie year to a well-rounded machine at the position." – Hasan
John Breech | CBS Sports: A game filled with offensive fireworks
Both the Bills and Bengals ranked in the top eight in the NFL in points per game, offensive yards per game and passing yards per game during the regular season so expect more of that on Sunday. The numbers show that while Joe Burrow "struggled against AFC North teams this year, he dominated everyone else he played."
"What this means is that teams that aren't used to playing Burrow are getting destroyed by Burrow. The Bills got a small taste of that in Week 17. Although the stats don't count, Burrow had a perfect QB rating (158.3) after starting 4 of 4 for 52 yards and a TD. Of course, it's also worth noting that the Bills also beat up on non-divisional teams. The difference is that Allen wasn't necessarily a better QB in those games." — Breech
In comparing the two QBs, Breech said that the problem with Allen is that "he has been a turnover machine this year." With that in mind, Breech has more trust in Burrow, who has never lost in the month of January in his career.
"That being said, even if I trust Burrow more, the Bengals could still be in some trouble this week and that's because they just lost their starting left tackle (Jonah Williams). Through the first 16 weeks of the season, the Bengals were one of just two teams in the NFL that started the same offensive line in every game, but after losing Williams, they've now lost three starters over the past three weeks, which could make things dicey (They've also lost right tackle La'el Collins and right guard Alex Cappa). Cappa and Williams are both "Week-to-Week," but it seems unlikely that they're going to play.
The Bengals are 0-3 this year when Burrow gets sacked five or more times, but 13-1 when he's sacked fewer than five times, which means they just need to make sure that the revamped offensive line is functioning well enough so that Burrow doesn't spend the entire game running for his life." — Breech
Dan Hanzus | Around the NFL: Bills rank No. 3 and Bengals rank No. 4 in Power Rankings
The Bills and Bengals both dropped one spot in Hanzus's rankings after their Wild Card Weekend performances.
The No. 3 Bills: "The Bills were supposed to high step their way into the Divisional Round. Instead, Buffalo was fighting just to stay in the tourney against a Dolphins team playing its third 0tring quarterback. The Bills managed to advance with a 34-31 win in Orchard Park, but the sloppy play in all phases must be addressed posthaste … The Dolphins converted Allen's three turnovers into 18 points. If the quarterback is similarly generous against the Bengals on Sunday, the Bills are going home." — Hanzus
The No. 4 Bengals: "In the bad old days, January football for the Bengals was ground zero for heartache and disappointment. In the Joe Burrow era, it feels like the glory days. Cincinnati had its latest massive playoff moment courtesy of the unforgettable 98=yard fumble return touchdown by Sam Hubbard that allowed the home team to escape with a 24-17 win over the hated Ravens … Up next? A titanic showdown with the Bills, with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line." — Hanzus
Greg Bishop | Sports Illustrated: Bills emotional edge is X-factor in Divisional Weekend
"Buffalo's emotional roller-coaster season. I'm not a huge x-factor guy in general. The beauty of football is that there are a million things that go into every play, not to mention every game. They're all x-factors, because the sport is that complex. But when I look at the four matchups, the one I'm most curious about is Bills-Bengals. Two great teams. Best game of the weekend. But I wonder whether the Bills can handle the emotional heft of what they're living through.
I mean, just think about their season so far: storms, Josh Allen's health and, of course, Damar Hamlin. The sports cliché would be that the Bills are steeled for what's ahead. But I do think there's a corresponding element in play, especially against a formidable team for a divisional-round game. Maybe it's all just too much, what they've overcome. If they can handle it, I like them to not only beat Cincinnati but to play in Super Bowl LVII." — Bishop
Roundtable discussion | The Athletic: Reasons to be calm and concerned ahead of Bengals showdown
In this roundtable, The Athletic's Bills writers Joe Buscaglia, Matthew Fairburn and Tim Graham discuss reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic ahead of the AFC Divisional round against the Bengals.
"Sean McDermott's Bills are now 4-0 in playoff games in Orchard Park with wins over the Colts, Ravens, Patriots and Dolphins over the past three postseasons. But in McDermott's tenure, the Bills have never welcomed in a Super Bowl contender quite like the Bengals. It will no doubt be a charged-up environment inside Highmark Stadium. On a side note, I always wonder about recency bias when it comes to the betting line. A funky, and likely fluky performance against the depleted Dolphins may have played a role in the original line." — Buscaglia