Bills vs. Bengals Preview: Will Josh Allen or Joe Burrow emerge victorious in AFC Divisional Round?

01/20/2023
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The Game Matchups Preview series is dedicated to breaking down how the Buffalo Bills match up with their opponent in each game of the 2022 NFL Season. This series will look at five key matchups; Bills Pass Offense vs. Opponent Pass Defense, Bills Rush Offense vs. Opponent Rush Defense, Bills Pass Defense vs. Opponent Pass Offense, Bills Rush Defense vs. Opponent Rush Offense, and Bills Special Teams vs. Opponent Special Teams. This entire analysis will conclude with three sections; “Why Buffalo Will Lose”, “Why Buffalo Will Win”, and a score prediction for the game.

Below I present 2022’s 19th iteration of this analysis for the Bills’ Divisional Round Game versus the Cincinnati Bengals. Included is a scale ranking the advantage in each matchup from 👏 (Minimal Advantage) to 👏👏👏👏👏 (Massive Advantage).

Bills Pass Offense vs. Bengals Pass Defense

Since Week #1 of the 2022 season, turnovers have been a major concern for the Buffalo Bills. Primary responsibility for this rests on the shoulders of their Franchise Quarterback, Josh Allen. Heading into the Divisional Round of the Playoffs Allen has accounted for a whopping 22 Turnovers and the rate at which he gives the ball to the opposing team has jumped from an acceptable 2.08% in 2021 to an abysmal 2.84% in 2022. This issue becomes even more pressing in win-or-go-home games due to the widely accepted belief that winning the Turnover Battle directly contributes to winning football games.

In fact, the Bills represent that belief flawlessly with a perfect 8-0 record when they don’t lose the Turnover Battle. For opponents though, beating the Bills in the Turnover Battle doesn’t guarantee victory, Buffalo has a .667 Win Percentage in such games, it just gives you a chance. That’s a chance that even the most elite of teams have proven to need this season, and one the Bengals may rely on come Sunday.

The Bengals will look to increase their chance of leaving Orchard Park victorious by relying on a defense that finished 11th in Takeaways (24). Their secondary factored heavily into that ranking – specifically at Safety – where Jessie Bates (S) and Vonn Bell (S) each finished the season with 4 Interceptions.

With two ball-hawk safeties deep, the Bills will likely shift away from their deep ball blitzkrieg and instead attack the Bengals in their weaker intermediate. In that range, the trio of Cam Taylor-Britt (CB), Eli Apple (CB), and Mike Hilton (Slot CB) have a combined Passer Rating against of 94.1 while accounting for just 1 Interception, which came off the hands of the Ravens’ Anthony Brown (QB). Look for Buffalo to feed Stefon Diggs in an effort to force double teams and thereby open up the field for the likes of Cole Beasley, Khalil Shakir, Isaiah McKenzie, and Gabe Davis. Buffalo has a very clear advantage here and one that could singlehandedly advance them to the AFC Championship game, assuming the mistakes are minimal

Where the Bengals will try to counter their deficiencies at Corner is through quick and consistent pressure up front. The duo of Trey Hendrickson (DE) and Sam Hubbard (DE) has presented a challenge for opposing Quarterbacks all season, despite them combining for just 14.5 Sacks. The low Sack total isn’t indicative of their disruption, however, as each player finished Top-15 in QB Pressures. Hendrickson generated 35 and Hubbard tallied 32 total pressures this season. This is sure to stress Dion Dawkins (LT), Spencer Brown (RT), and the rest of a Bills Offensive Line that has struggled to keep their Quarterback clean as of late. Most recently, Allen was sacked a career-worst 7 times against a Dolphins team that sent 27 blitzes on the day and at times were exclusively in Cover-0. While that same gameplan isn’t expected of the Bengals this week, if you do see Allen on the move early and often it could spell major issues for a Bills offense that is known to make a mistake or two…or three…

EDGE: Bills 👏👏👏👏

Bills Rush Offense vs. Bengals Rush Defense

Buffalo Bills Running Backs combined to rush for 87 yards Wildcard weekend. While not an overly impressive number, this is the highest single-game total for Bills RBs, in the playoffs, since Josh Allen became the Quarterback in 2018. This is an important development for a Bills team that the past two postseasons relied much too heavily on their Quarterback. In that timespan, Buffalo’s one-dimensional postseason offense saw him account for 88.6% of Yards in 2020 and 83.5% in 2021. With one game in the books in 2022, Allen’s number still remains high at 79.4%, but the noted addition of a competent ground game provides the Bills with added benefits. Whether those are the ability to control the clock or simply provide Josh Allen a breather teams now have to be cognizant of the multiple ways in which the Bills can attack them, something the Bengals are uniquely prepared for.

The Cincinnati Bengals take winning in the trenches seriously, and on the Defensive side of the ball that means stacking 650 pounds of man in the middle. In D.J. Reader (DT) and B.J. Hill (DT) the Bengals have accomplished just that, forming arguably the most underappreciated DT duo in the NFL. Reader has the size (347lb) and length (6’3″) to wreak havoc up front – which is something the Bills must take notice of. He outweighs Rodger Saffold (LG) by ~25lb and both Mitch Morse and Ryan Bates by ~50lb making him exceedingly difficult for Buffalo to move off his spot. Joining Reader, B.J. Hill exasperates the challenge up front as the much more athletic of the duo. That athleticism led to Hill accounting for 68 Tackles despite his primary responsibility being to keep his Linebackers clean. The Bills will look for running lanes in the middle against the Bengals but with these two mammoths lying in wait, doing so successfully seems unlikely.

Where the Bills often look to flip the script in the run game, is by relying on the legs of their Quarterback. In his postseason career, Josh Allen is averaging 7.9 rushes per game for a total of 55.9 yards. While Allen’s ability to effectively move the ball on the ground should never be diminished, achieving those numbers against the Bengals will be a tall task. On the season, Cincinnati averages just 3 rushes and 14.1 Yards per Game given up to opposing Quarterbacks. They are essentially built to stop QB runs, having to play Lamar Jackson twice a year, which led them to draft Logan Wilson (LB) and Germaine Pratt (LB), each of whom ranks in the top 12% All-Time as far as athleticism at the linebacker position goes. Wilson and Pratt are each sideline-to-sideline linebackers that rarely miss tackles, as both are sitting below a miss rate of 5% on the season. What does this mean for Buffalo? It means that while Josh Allen has the propensity to run away, or through, opposing defenders, against the Bengals this week it won’t be as easy.

EDGE: Bengals 👏👏

Bills Pass Defense vs. Bengals Pass Offense

A major area of weakness for the Bills’ secondary in 2022 has been their inability to contest jump balls. Whether it was George Pickens in Week #5, Justin Jefferson in Week #10, or Amari Cooper in Week #11 it has seemed as though every time a ball was up for grabs the opponent would come down with it. Against the Dolphins, that trend, at least momentarily, took a back seat. Tre White (CB) and Taron Johnson (Slot CB) each made highlight-worthy plays that included perfect timing to punch the ball out of a receiver’s hands, who otherwise would have made easy catches. Altogether, the Bills finished with 10 Passes Defended as they held Rookie Skylar Thompson to a QuBeR of just 8.55. This is the type of play expected of Sean McDermott’s defense and play they will need to elevate this week against the Bengals. Do that and maybe, just maybe, Buffalo will acquire further reinforcements next week in the form of a player who wears #23.Joe Burrow QuBeR

If Wild Card Weekend was a Sporcle Quiz for the Bills, then this matchup against the Bengals is equivalent to the Bar Exam. Joe Burrow tied Josh Allen for 3rd place in All-Pro votes (15) for good reason, having yet another dominant season. His regular season QuBeR of 61.85 was good for #5 on the year as he continually abused opponents through the use of a wide array of weapons. Ja’Marr Chase (WR), Tee Higgins (WR), and Tyler Boyd (WR) could all be WR1 on at least one other team in the NFL posing matchup nightmares for opponents who can’t afford to double a single player. They add to that a solid Tight End in Hayden Hurst and a pair of good pass-catching backs in Joe Mixon (RB) and Samaje Perine (RB) to create what may be the best skill group in the NFL. This will put pressure not only on the Bills’ secondary but also on their linebackers to avoid mistakes in their zone drops and contest any ball which Burrow pushes downfield. The Bills haven’t played a passing attack like this since Week #6, and frankly, this may be the best they see all season.

If healthy, the advantage in this would be massive for the Bengals however, at this point in the season injuries are beginning to take their toll up front. In the past few weeks alone the Bengals have lost three starters on their Offensive Line in Jonah Williams (LT), Alex Cappa (RG), and La’el Collin (RT) none of whom are expected to play this week. The result is likely Jackson Carman (LT), Max Scharping (RG), and Hakeem Adeniji (RT) starting for the Bengals, a trio who combined for just 254 Offensive Snaps during the regular season. This will force Joe Burrow to release the ball quicker than his already fast rate of 2.55s (NFL-2) in order to avoid pressure. Buffalo will likely mix and match their rush packages sending anywhere between three and six rushers as they try and for Burrow into an errant throw or two. A stat to keep in mind, when Burrow is pressured on under 20% of his dropbacks this season, the Bengals are 9-1, at or over 20% they are just 4-3. 20% is the magic number for the Buffalo Bills.

EDGE: Bengals 👏👏👏

Bills Rush Defense vs. Bengals Rush Offense

Like the Bengals, the Bills’ dominance against the run starts in the middle of their Defensive Line. The rotation of Ed Oliver (DT), DaQuan Jones (DT), Jordan Phillips (DT), and Tim Settle (DT) don’t get nearly enough love from national pundits, let alone their own fan base. From 2021 to 2022 the Bills nearly doubled their Run Defense efficiency improving their DVOA from -11.9% to -19.7% in a long overdue improvement. This has provided Buffalo with more versatility behind their Defensive Line, allowing them to unleash their Linebackers on the rest of the league. The result was a First-Team All-Pro in Matt Milano (LB) and possibly the best season of Tremaine Edmunds’ (LB) career. While Buffalo will be keyed in on slowing down Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ dynamic air attack, they are set to rely on the aforementioned players to slow down a quietly good Bengals run game.

The Bengals’ run game is led by Joe Mixon (RB) and Samaje Perine (RB). These two combined for 1,250 Rushing Yards and 9 Rushing TDs on 318 carries this season. That is comparable production to Pro Bowler Saquon Barkley (1312/10/295) albeit with a much lower Y/A of 3.93. While each may be more dangerous in the Bengals’ passing attack, their presence on the field does not preclude opponents from defending the run. Mixon has the rare all-around talent desired in Running Backs and if given the opportunity, will leverage his 4.45 speed to break the occasional big run. Perine is a different runner relying more exclusively on his size (240lb) and power as one-cut back to punish defenders in the second level. Theoretically, the Bills should win the battle up front against a depleted Bengals Offensive Line putting all the pressure on their Linebackers to make big plays. That means Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds who were punishers against the Dolphins are on a collision course for Mixon and Perine.

The Bengals’ run production does not exclusively come from their Running Backs though as in 2022 Joe Burrow ran the ball more than he ever has in his career. He has added 266 yards and 6 touchdowns on 80 carries this season, more often than not as a scrambler for the Bengals. More importantly, Burrow has shown a propensity to tuck and run the ball for First Downs on big plays accounting for a total of 30 First Downs on the season. While he may not be a QB the Bills are expected to consistently spy, his ability to move the ball with his legs should add some hesitation to the Bills’ Pass Rushers and Linebackers as they sit back in their zone. At some point on Sunday, we are going to see one or both of these team’s Quarterbacks attempt to take over this game, don’t be surprised if that includes a timely rush or two from the Bengals Quarterback.

EDGE: Bills 👏👏

Bills Special Teams vs. Bengals Special Teams

The Bills finished the 2022 Regular Season as the #1 Ranked Special Teams by DVOA (+5.0%) mostly due to the trio of Tyler Bass (K), Sam Martin (P), and Nyheim Hines (KR/PR). Bass had just one bad game, despite his home field being one of the worst Kicking stadiums in the league, and has managed to make 93.1% of his Kicks.

At Punter, Sam Martin has often been underappreciated because of his lack of use but in the Wild Card round, he demonstrated his value. On 5 punts Martin had a Y/P of 47.80, pinned 2 balls inside the 20, and contributed 1 Touchdown saving Tackle. Lastly, is the trade deadline addition which many mistook as an Offensive one. Instead, Nyheim Hines came to Buffalo as a sure-handed Kick and Punt Returner that to date is averaging 8.9 Y/PR and 29.0 Y/KR as a game-changing Special Teams weapon for the Bills.

The Bengals Special Teams was much closer to average, finishing the season #18 in Special Teams DVOA (-0.5%). They do have some weapons in this phase, beginning with Kicker Evan McPherson. McPherson may have seen his Regular Season Kick % drop from 91.4% in 2021 to 87.7% in 2022 but his Postseason consistency remains unprecedented. In just 5 career games he is 15/15 on FGs as arguably the MVP of the Bengals’ 2021 run to the Super Bowl. Punting for the Bengals has been a little more touch and go with rookie Drue Chrisman playing some inconsistent football. He has produced an I20% of 48.4% though but will see his accuracy tested Sunday with some wet snow and swirling winds expected. Last is returner, where Trayveon Williams (RB) handles Kicks and Trent Taylor (WR) handles Punts. Williams’ 22.5 Y/KR leaves a lot to be desired while Taylor’s 10.0 Y/PR will make him a concern if and when the Bills punt.

EDGE: Bills 👏👏👏

Why Buffalo Will Lose

When you play against a Quarterback who can play at an elite level, no victory is guaranteed. That’s what Joe Burrow is capable of and with the added benefit of a three-headed monster at receiver, the Bengals are incredibly dangerous. Chase, Higgins, and Boyd present a unique challenge that will prevent the Bills from shading their safeties to one side of the field over the other. That means the Bills will be more reliant on their CBs now than ever, and while they are improving there is little to be done to slow down the Bengals. Add to that issues underneath in the form of Mixon, Perine, Hurst, or even Burrow using his legs and holding the Bengals under 30 won’t be an easy accomplishment.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals are set to attack Josh Allen and hawk any balls that can be contested. Turnovers have been an issue for Buffalo this season – and you can be sure that Cincinnati is fully aware of that. Look for Cincinnati to prioritize winning the turnover battle, even at the expense of a big play or two given up. Buffalo’s usual fallback in the event that occurs is to ramp up the run game, something that doesn’t project to work against this Bengals team. While Buffalo is surely going to put up points it’s the mistakes that can doom them, and those are mistakes the Bengals are more than capable of causing.

Why Buffalo Will Win

When you play against a Quarterback who can play at an elite level no victory is guaranteed. That’s what Josh Allen is capable of and whether he does it through the air or on the ground when he is at his best little can be done to slow him down. This week in particular look for Allen to feed the ball to Stefon Diggs in arguably the biggest mismatch of this game. Eli Apple is incapable of covering him 1-on-1, so involving Diggs early and often will be a priority to shift the Bengals’ defense. If Buffalo does that, the rest of the field should open and whether that means the Bills attack with a player like Dawson Knox underneath or Playoff Gabe Davis over the top, points will be had for Buffalo – and lots of them.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Bills will accept that the Bengals are going to hit a big play or two with full focus on the bend don’t break mentality. As long as Burrow is prevented from hitting one of his three receivers deep, the Bills will be provided time to test and feel out the weakened Offensive Line protecting him. Burrow historically has crumbled when facing tangible pressure and that’s something the Bills will look to generate in bunches Sunday. That means mixing and matching blitz packages and attempting to force Burrow into a mistake or two of his own. Make that happen Sunday and whether it’s Jordan Poyer, Tre White, Kaiir Elam, or someone else the Bills have the capability to come away with the ball more than most care to admit.

Prediction: Bills 34 – Bengals 31

If these teams played 100 times each team would win 50 games. This is one of the more even matchups you will see in the 2022 playoffs with each team having very clear advantages and disadvantages. The game goes down to the final whistle and while each Quarterback is elite this game likely comes down to the Quarterback more capable of putting his team on his back. You could argue that’s Joe Burrow, seeing as though his team has played in the Super Bowl, but I’m here to tell you it’s Josh Allen. The Bills will go only so far as Allen can take them and right now Allen has his eyes set on willing them to the Lombardi Trophy.

Lifelong Bills fan who's obsession reached a new level in the past decade. Began writing about the Bills in 2019 and since then have produced more than 125 Articles. Lover of statistics and leverages Software Engineering skills to manipulate data and create 'applications' for Bills Mafia!

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