The Bengals Escape Again, But Danger Lurks

Cincinnati needed just one good half to beat the Patriots. They’ll have to get a complete effort Monday night against Buffalo.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? That character trait is important in ascertaining your mental state after Cincinnati’s 22-18 win over New England on Christmas Eve. The optimist looks to a seventh straight win, an 11-4 record, a lead in the AFC North, and a pair of halves going back to the second stanza in Tampa that are about as dominant (53-3 aggregate) as it gets in pro football … and sees an obvious Super Bowl contender.

The pessimist looks to the other halves of those games (aggregate score 35-3 against), the continued inability to play four solid quarters on either side of the ball, and the injury attrition (right tackle La’el Collins the latest key starter to go down, and for the season) … and worries that our beloved boys in Stripes may have peaked. When it comes to the Bengals, I’ve been a pessimist forever.

Given the Bengals’ next game is a colossal Monday night encounter with Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills, I recommend staying “glass half full” if you’d like to sleep at night.

Along with Pittsburgh II, the New England game was another one whose final score was highly flattering to the losers. Cincinnati woulda coulda shoulda won the game 40-12. It took a series of highly unlikely events, including a Hail Mary TD pass and miscommunication between Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, to keep this game so close. The fact that the Bengals were in position to throw it away late and came up with the winning play despite everything (Vonn Bell’s punch out and B.J. Hill’s subsequent fumble recovery) is surely a positive display of the “whatever it takes” psychology that was once a specialty of the Patriots.

Still, it never should have been competitive. With the score 22-0 at halftime, I was mentally pondering when Brandon Allen would relieve Burrow at quarterback for some mop-up duty. Burrow stayed in and put up some AFC Player of the Week stats (40-52 for 375 yards and three TDs), remarkable numbers given the conditions, but I’d have preferred him to play far less than he did.

Ah yes, the conditions. The frigid temperatures hovered around zero with the wind chill, and I really think it had an effect on certain players and the team as a whole in the second half. Chase in particular played at about 55 percent capacity. Everything after halftime on Cincinnati’s side seemed to be spinning at 33 RPM, after a 78 first half. Hey, it’s natural. Like most of you, I spent much of the weekend staying out of the bitter chill. I’m sure it was hard for the Bengals to be very motivated, especially with a big lead.

Regardless, they got the job done, thus defeating NFL bogeymen Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in consecutive weeks. Now, a much larger challenge awaits: Allen and Buffalo, the current top seed in the AFC.

Allen of course plays like a wild stallion. The Bills’ offense, save wideout Stefon Diggs, isn’t especially talented, so Allen has had to play hero ball more than expected this season. And he’s been heroic, no question. He’s fourth in passing DYAR and tops in the league among quarterbacks in rushing—better than Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, Lamar Jackson, etc. (Burrow is seventh in rushing DYAR, by the way.)

Fortunately, mobile QBs are a Lou Anarumo specialty. He wrote the book on containing Lamar, and one of the keys to Cincinnati’s success against the Chiefs has been the removal of Pat Mahomes as a running threat. Allen provides a different sort of challenge, a punisher on designed runs who defeats opponents mentally by running them over before throwing bombs over their heads. Still, you have to like the way the Bengals defense is built to slow a player such as Allen. I just wish Sam Hubbard was available; his power and tackling ability on the edge will be madly missed.

On the other side of the ball, Buffalo has a reputation for being an outstanding defensive team (fourth in DVOA), and they do have a nice rotation of pass rushers and interior defenders, a bullet train hitter in linebacker Matt Milano, and a decent secondary led by safety Jordan Poyer, albeit one that’s been injury-hit this season.

Yet they’ve been something less than the sum of their parts, especially since pass rusher Von Miller went down with a torn knee ligament. In particular, their tackling in the run game has been poor. You’d have to imagine their effort level will be sky high for such an important showdown, but Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine could be critical factors as the game progresses and the defenses wear down off the initial adrenaline rush.

Buffalo has also struggled at cornerback. Tre’davious White, a former All-Pro, has been slow to regain his old form after tearing his ACL (remember that when Chido Awuzie returns). Taron Johnson is solid in the slot, but outside the numbers the Bills have been burned steadily this season. Jaylon Waddle has a pair of 100-yard games against them, Justin Jefferson put up 193 yards in that insane performance in November, and the likes of Amon-Ra St. Brown, Cooper Kupp, Amari Cooper, and even old pal JuJu Smith-Schuster have cracked triple-digits against Buffalo. Chase and Tee Higgins are a handful for any secondary—they have to like their chances in any one-on-one matchups Monday.

It would also help if Evan McPherson can revert to his “Future 10x All-Pro” status. I jinxed him by praising the improved special teams in last week’s column, and those K-balls used in kicking situations were doubtlessly boulders to boot in the New England chill. Still, this week would be a good time for Mac to get back in the habit of making every field goal and PAT.

There is plenty at stake for both squads. Obviously, the Bills have pointed all year toward ensuring the conference’s top seed. The importance of playing the postseason in Orchard Park, New York, has taken on outsized importance for them, and a loss plus a Chiefs win would return K.C. to the top of the seeding ladder. Cincinnati can get there with a pair of wins and a Chiefs loss, but with Denver and Las Vegas on their schedule it seems highly unlikely that Kansas City loses again.

It’s much more important for the Bengals to win. Top seed notwithstanding, the Bills have their division title sewn up. Somehow the damned Ravens are still lurking about, and the regular season finale next weekend with Baltimore remains a battle for the AFC North despite the stark difference in recent level of play from the two teams. Cincinnati can lose to Buffalo and still win the division by beating Baltimore, but they can also beat Buffalo and lose the division by losing to the Ravens.

AFC seeds 1-6 (except 4) are all still possibilities for Cincinnati. So is a rematch with Baltimore in the playoffs. Indeed, the Bengals could play the Bills, Ravens, Ravens, and Bills in that order over the next month. If they can string together two good halves on Monday night, they won’t have to.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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