A look at the records might suggest it’s a mistake that the 3-1 Buffalo Bills are underdogs to the 1-3 Cincinnati Bengals.
An 0-2 start had the Bengals looking like one of the worst teams in the NFL. Coach Marvin Lewis, however, borrowed a page from Rex Ryan, who last year fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman and replaced him with Anthony Lynn after the Bills got off to a 0-2 start. Lewis this year fired Ken Zampese after the Bengals failed to score a touchdown in their first two games and replaced him with Bill Lazor.
The change has paid immediate dividends. Cincinnati has scored 55 points its last two games, an overtime loss at Green Bay and a 31-7 win over Cleveland in Week Four. So perhaps the Bengals being 3-point favorites makes a bit more sense.
Here is how the two teams match up:
When the Bills run: Give Rick Dennison credit: The offensive coordinator has stuck with the run, even when it’s been tough sledding. That paid off against Atlanta in the form of a 19-play drive. Records are incomplete, but it’s safe to say that’s one of the longest drives in team history. Coach Sean McDermott challenged his offensive line to play better against Atlanta, and there was some improvement from the previous two weeks, although there is still plenty of work to be done to match the level of the last two years. The Bills have just one rushing touchdown this season, and the O-line ranks 26th in run blocking and 30th in pass blocking according to analytics website Football Outsiders. The Bengals rank 11th in average yards per carry against at 3.91, led by defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, as well as linebackers Kevin Minter and Vontaze Burfict. EDGE: Even.
When the Bills pass: Some how, some way the Bills are moving the ball through the air the last two weeks, although that will be even more of a challenge without No. 1 wide receiver Jordan Matthews. The team’s two leading receivers are running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Charles Clay, and that’s no mistake. Receivers Zay Jones, Andre Holmes and Kaelin Clay have all struggled to get involved, but one or more of them will need to step up in Matthews’ absence. Dennison has done a nice job utilizing play action, and quarterback Tyrod Taylor is showing some of the deep-ball accuracy he displayed in 2015. The Bengals come into Sunday’s game ranked third in passing defense, allowing just 164.8 yards per game, but they’ve benefited from facing two rookie quarterbacks and the Ravens were content to run all over them in Week One, so that skews the numbers a bit. EDGE: Bengals.
When the Bengals run: Cincinnati’s three-headed monster of Jeremy Hill, Gio Bernard and Joe Mixon hasn’t scared opposing defenses. The Bengals are averaging just 88.8 yards per game (23rd in the NFL) and 3.35 yards per carry (28th). Offensive linemen Russell Bodine, Jake Fisher and Clint Boling have all graded out poorly in run blocking. Hill is the starter by name, but Mixon has been getting the majority of carries. The Bengals are one of only two teams in the NFL not to have a rushing touchdown, which is inexcusable with the running backs they have. The Bills’ run defense was somewhat quietly gashed last week against Atlanta in Week Four for 149 yards against. This would be a good time to point out the team misses Marcell Dareus. Oh, that’s right, he played last week. EDGE: Bills.
When the Bengals pass: Talk in Cincinnati after two games was about whether the Bengals should bench Andy Dalton for A.J. McCarron. That’s been quieted lately, especially after Dalton torched the Browns for 286 yards and four touchdowns in Week Four. In A.J. Green, the Bengals have a legit No. 1 receiver. Tight end Tyler Kroft has been a hot fantasy add after making six catches for 68 yards and two touchdowns against Cleveland. Bernard is a big threat out of the backfield – he took a pass 61 yards for a touchdown against Cleveland, as well. Buffalo’s secondary has allowed just one passing touchdown this season — tops in the NFL. EDGE: Bills.
Special teams: Stephen Hauschka is a weapon for the Bills. He’s earned back-to-back AFC Special Teams Player of the Week awards thanks to his deadly accuracy on long field goals. Punter Colton Schmidt has been solid for the Bills this year, but the return and coverage teams have been mediocre. Part of that is the shuffling of returners – last week it was Micah Hyde on punts and Taiwan Jones on kicks. The Bengals’ punt returners, Alex Erickson and Pacman Jones, are both dangerous. EDGE: Even.
Coaching: Marvin Lewis is past his expiration date. It’s hard to believe he’s been the Bengals’ coach for 15 years — making him the second-longest-tenured coach in the league — without a playoff victory, but that’s what happens when you have a cheap owner. Sean McDermott is pressing all the right buttons for the Bills at the moment. He’s got his team buying in, and you can be sure McDermott is happy to have his team be the underdog Sunday. The “nobody believes in us” motivation will be used again. EDGE: Bills.
Prediction: Bills 24, Bengals 23