There's a lot at stake for both the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills on Monday night, including a chance for each of them to retain their shot at claiming the No. 1 seed in the AFC, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the conference portion of the playoffs.
Buffalo enters the game favored to claim that spot thanks to a one-game edge in the standings and it owning the tiebreaker over the Chiefs. But the Bengals also have the tiebreaker over Kansas City, and they can move a step closer to potentially claiming the 1-seed if they can nab a win over the Bills. Got all that? Good. But that's not all. Cincinnati still has to close out its claim on the AFC North, where the Baltimore Ravens are still alive.
We're going to be seeing each of these teams in the postseason -- we just don't know where or when or against whom or, if they meet in a rematch, where said rematch will take place. The result of this contest will obviously have a dramatic effect on that, as well as a whole lot more.
Before we break down the matchup, here's a look at how you can watch the game:
How to watch
Date: Monday, Jan. 2 | Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Paycor Stadium (Cincinnati)
TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: Bills -1.5, O/U 49.5 (courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook)
When the Bills have the ball
The Bills and Bengals have not played each other since Josh Allen became, well, this version of Josh Allen. The last time these two teams played was back in 2019, when Allen was still early in his second NFL season. That lack of familiarity is why I'm excited to see what sort of bespoke game plan Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo comes up with to handle the unique challenge Allen poses for a defense.
We've seen him do a great job against Patrick Mahomes, the only other quarterback in Allen's stratosphere as a multi-dimensional playmaker, so it'll be fascinating to see if the way Anarumo attacks Allen is at all similar to the way he has worked things against Mahomes -- and if not, how the game plan itself will differ. The Buffalo and Kansas City offenses are not actually all that similar despite being built around similarly-gifted quarterbacks, but it would not be surprising at all if Anarumo borrowed at least some facets of the Kansas City game plan for this matchup.
Namely, dropping as many defenders as possible into coverage and rushing only three or four seems like a strong way to counteract what Buffalo likes to do. It could muck up the Bills' deep crossing routes, and layering the intermediate area of the field with multiple defenders could help take advantage of Allen's recent inaccuracy by positioning players for picks on overthrown balls. It would also allow the Bengals to devote multiple coverage defenders to Stefon Diggs, and force Allen to beat them with his secondary and tertiary targets. Especially given the injuries and youth in the secondary, it seems like a pretty good strategy.
Of course, the Bills aren't just going to let the Bengals sit back. Allen and Diggs have fantastic chemistry on the quick out routes and short sit routes that could allow them to move the chains incrementally, and both the running backs (Devin Singletary and James Cook) and tight end Dawson Knox would figure to be heavily involved if the Bengals were to lean into that type of plan. Plus, if there were any snaps where the Bengals played man in those types of looks, it would allow a lot of room for Allen to scramble if he could break contain in the pocket.
A key to executing this type of game plan against Buffalo is actually getting pressure with that three- or four-man rush. Sam Hubbard is listed as questionable after getting in limited practices all week, but Trey Hendrickson is in the lineup despite his wrist injury. That duo will have a lot on its shoulders here, but luckily for the Bengals, Buffalo's offensive line has been average at best in pass protection this season.
The group up front has been better in the run game of late, though, and that might provide the Bills with an opportunity to keep the Bengals off balance. The presence of D.J. Reader in the middle of the line makes it difficult for anybody to run on the Bengals, but Allen's ability to threaten teams both on the edge and up the middle as a power runner changes the math. Singletary tends to carry a higher snap share in games against elite opponents, so that will probably be the case here, and he has proven his versatility in the run and pass game, and has looked better recently than he did for a few weeks in the middle of the season.
When the Bengals have the ball
We have a much better idea of what things are going to look like on this side of the matchup, largely because the Buffalo defense and Cincinnati offense are largely just going to do what they do.
The Bills are going to play a lot of zone, they're rarely going to send blitzes, and they're going to try to force the Bengals to work the ball methodically down the field by taking away anything in the deep areas of the field. The Bengals are going to operate almost exclusively out of the shotgun, they're going to try to spread the field to give Joe Burrow clean reads, and they're going to try to hit those explosive plays at any opportunity, despite knowing that the Bills will do all they can to take them away.
The matchups between perimeter cornerbacks Tre'Davious White and Dane Jackson (and Kaiir Elam) and Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins figure to have the most dramatic effect on this matchup, but Buffalo's style of defense could make Taron Johnson vs. Tyler Boyd, as well as Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano vs. Hayden Hurst, Joe Mixon, and Samaje Perine into an important battleground as well. Star safety Jordan Poyer is listed as questionable after not practicing on Thursday or Friday and getting in only a limited session on Saturday, and his presence of absence could be crucial to containing all of those threats. His ability to work over the top in the middle of the field or when playing a deep half (or quarter) is crucial to containing the deep ball.
The Bills are going to rely on their front four defenders to get pressure on Burrow, and make him uncomfortable. The Bengals offensive line struggled early in the season, but had been coalescing of late. That is going to be challenged here against one of the league's best defensive fronts, and without the benefit of La'el Collins, who suffered a season-ending injury last week. Collins' backup, Hakeem Adeniji, is not nearly as strong in either the pass or run game as the man he is set to replace. Look for the Bills to try to take advantage of that however possible. Burrow will have to be on high alert for pressure off the right side of the line (particularly from Greg Rousseau, who spends a lot of time there), and be ready to step up and through the pocket or take off to the perimeter.
Buffalo's run defense checks in third in Football Outsiders' DVOA so far this season, and while Mixon has had a few blow-up games, he's still averaging just 4 yards per carry on the year. It doesn't seem like an advantageous matchup for the Cincinnati run game, but putting the ball in Burrow's hands is almost always their best chance of winning anyway. That doesn't change here.
Prediction: Bills 24, Bengals 21