We have reached the midway point of the season and the reward is an exciting matchup against the Bengals on Sunday night. The Bills have a long week to prepare as they come off a Thursday night victory and prepare for their second straight primetime game.
Here are 6 storylines to know ahead of Sunday:
1. A playoff rematch between two elite QBs
It'll be a Divisional Round rematch from last season between the Bills and Bengals. Cincinnati beat Buffalo 27-10 to knock the Bills out of a chance at the AFC Championship. Buffalo scored on only two of eight offensive drives, and it happened to be the only game the Bills scored less than 17 points all season.
While it was an uncharacteristic loss, the Bills aren't focused on it anymore as they're in the middle of a new season. They're still led by one of the best quarterbacks in the league and that talent will be on display come Sunday when he takes the stage.
And it's not just Allen who will be on the field as a master of his position — Bengals QB Joe Burrow is right there with him. The two make up a small group of current NFL QBs who can play the game like they can when it comes to their combination of arm strength and athletic ability.
Allen and Burrow are no strangers to each other either as they had the same quarterbacks coach coming out of college football.
"(We have) the same quarterback coach in Jordan Palmer coming out and we've spent a lot of time throwing together, so we definitely have a lot of respect," Allen said to Kevin Clark on the This is Football podcast. "I think that's the key word, respect. I do enjoy being around those guys. They're guys, guys and I think that's what kind of puts us in the position to be the type of players we are because one, we love football and two, we everything around football.
Allen currently leads the NFL with 22 total touchdowns, a 71.7% completion percentage and 18 red zone touchdowns. He's the first player in the Super Bowl era with at least 17 passing touchdowns and five rushing touchdowns in his team's first eight games.
Burrow has had a slower start to the 2023 season due to a calf injury but looks to be heating up as he helped put 31 points on the board against the 49ers in a Week 8 road win. The QB went 28 of 32 for 283 passing yards and posted an 87.5% completion percentage, threw for three touchdowns and finished with a 134.8 passer rating. Burrow has quarterbacked a team that has made it to at least the AFC Championship game in each of the last two seasons.
2. Are the Bengals back?
The Bengals started off their season with a 1-3 record but have won the last three games to bring them to a 4-3 record heading into Week 9. A slow start isn't foreign to Cincinnati as they began the 2022 season with a 1-2 record before turning things around.
This season the Bengals were dealing with injuries to start, which included players like Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins. But as of late, Cincinnati looks like they're back to their winning ways as they've scored more than 30 points in two of their last three.
To Bills players and staff, it doesn't matter what the Bengals record is because they know the roster is filled with lots of talent.
"We prepare for them at their absolute best," assistant head coach and defensive line coach Eric Washington said. "We won't look at records and we know that they are a potent and powerful offense led by their quarterback and some of the exceptional skill players. So, we're going to prepare for what we know they're capable of…so we won't concern ourselves with their record. We know what Cincinnati is capable of and fortunately, we have a couple of recent experiences with them that we can look back on and use to get ourselves ready to go."
In the first four weeks of the season the Bengals were averaging 12.25 points per game (31st in the NFL), 236 total yards per game (32nd), 166 passing yards per game (29th) and were scoring touchdowns in the red zone 50% of the time (tied for 20th).
In their last three wins they're looking a lot better as they've been averaging 27.33 points per game (t-4th), 331.3 total yards per game (15th), 240.3 passing yards per game (12th), scoring touchdowns in the red zone 66.7% of the time (t-5th) and have a +5 turnover margin (2nd).
ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky believes the Bengals offense is back and here to stay based off how they've played in the last few weeks, especially in their win against the 49ers.
"The overwhelming thing that stood out were four or five snaps that Joe had to go create," Orlovsky said of their Week 8 win on One Bills Live. "They ran quarterback draw with him, he got out of a crazy sack, he made three or four plays with his feet…The calf injury for Joe affected everybody. It didn't just affect the quarterback. Do you know how hard it is to play offensive line when everybody on the defense knows the quarterback's going to be six yards behind the center and that's it? (You) can't move."
3. A big test for Bills DBs and why takeaways could be crucial
Buffalo's defense will have their hands full this week as they prepare to slow an offense that has multiple ways to win. With three talented receivers in Ja'Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, the Bills DB unit knows they'll have a big opportunity come Sunday night.
"This is gonna be the toughest test they've faced in a few weeks," Bills legend and current radio analyst Eric Wood said on One Bills Live. "You have New England and the Buccaneers, those aren't two formidable offenses in this league so this injury depleted defense that's now getting a chance to get their legs under them a little bit with the 10 days rest and a little extra time game planning, I'm interested to see how it looks different this year defensively for the Bills under Sean McDermott against Cincinnati."
McDermott calling the defensive plays this year will be one difference compared to the last time these two faced each other in the playoffs. They'll also head into the game with some more strength in the secondary as they agreed to terms on a trade for Packer cornerback Rasul Douglas on Tuesday afternoon. Douglas has one interception so far this season and combined for nine interceptions from 2021-2022.
With two elite quarterbacks featured in this one who know how to score points, takeaways could become a very important part of the game. And it speaks to the test the defense will have come Sunday. The Bills and the Bengals happen to be two of the best at taking the ball away this season. Buffalo has 14 takeaways, which is good for third most in the NFL and the Bengals have 13 takeaways.
4. Can the Bills stay consistent with first half offensive success?
Ahead of Week 8's game against the Bucs, Buffalo was struggling to score points in the first half. They flipped the script against Tampa Bay as they scored a field goal on their first drive and 17 total points in the first half. The Bills will look to stay consistent in this category as they get ready to face a team that's averaged more than 27 points per game over the last three weeks.
One thing that helped lead the Bills to scoring 17 in the first half was their use tempo and ability to spread the ball out.
"I think anytime we can get multiple guys multiple targets, I think that's when we're at our best offensively," offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey said after their win over the Bucs. "And it's not trying to force feed any one guy or the other, it's calling plays and who the ball finds. I think that's when we're at our best is going out and calling the best play in that situation and going out and trusting the reads…I thought that was a good example of what happened on Thursday, Josh did a great job of just working the progressions."
ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky appeared on One Bills Live this week and explained how Cincinnati's defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo will try to make the Bills uncomfortable. Orlovsky shared that he thinks an up-tempo offense could work at times against a defense like Cincinnati.
"They're going to force Josh to be very patient," Orlovsky shared. "They're going to force Ken Dorsey to call runs. They're going to force some of the RPO looks…I think identity wise that's where some of the tempo will present itself, some of the perimeter screens have to be a little bit more of the conversation."
So far this season the Bengals are allowing an average of 20.6 points per game (16th), 370.7 total yards per game (27th), 81.7 passer rating (8th), have 10 interceptions (3rd) and allow teams to score in the red zone 48.1% of the time (t-10th).
5. How the Bills will approach going back to Cincinnati
The last time the Bills played in Cincinnati was on January 2 when Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest event on the field in Week 17. The game never resumed as Hamlin was rushed to the hospital in efforts to save his life. Thankfully, less than a year later Hamlin is on the roster and feeling like his old self.
"It's a lot for a team to go through though," Allen said on the Let’s Go podcast with Tom Brady. "I think it weighed on us quite heavily through the rest of the season and it was constantly on our minds but for him to come back and obviously make the squad and be an inspiration, not just to us but so many people in the world. He's done so much good not in just this area alone but in the entire country in terms of bringing awareness to CPR."
While Buffalo knows there's a game to play, they're not going to forget about the weight of their last trip to Cincinnati.
"We will communicate on that," head coach Sean McDermott said of the subject. "I think the biggest thing that's in front of us is the football game. And that's what we have to keep it about is that game, and what it's going to take to win at Cincinnati."
Assistant head coach and defensive line coach Eric Washington said while there isn't a perfect road map on how to navigate things like this, they'll focus on the present and be thankful for where they're at now.
"We all recognize that that was an unbelievable event," Washington shared. "I think what we'll try to do is live in the present and be grateful and thankful that our team is viable, Damar is viable. He's back in the fold and (we'll) just focus on what's in front of us as opposed to the horrific set of circumstances that we experienced a year ago."
6. Bills looking to stay undefeated on SNF
The Bills remain undefeated in the Thursday window after their win over the Bucs and look to do the same on Sunday night. The Bills are 5-0 on Sunday night in the Sean McDermott and Josh Allen era.
They've beaten teams like the Chiefs, Packers and Steelers on SNF in years past. In Week 6 this year they squeaked out a 14-9 over the Giants.
Allen has 12 total touchdowns, and the offense has averaged 24.4 points per game in those five wins.
While Buffalo is looking to stay hot on the big stage, the Bengals are looking for their first conference win. They're 0-3 so far against the AFC with losses to the Ravens, Titans and Browns.