Three of about 3,000 things on my mind as the Bills get ready to take on the Bengals in what should be a legendary playoff game…

Fear Kaiir

One of my big concerns in the first contest against the Bengals was Buffalo’s second corner spot. The worry was that Joe Burrow would come to the line of scrimmage, locate Kaiir Elam or Dane Jackson and mercilessly attack that position all night long. Elam played well enough against the Dolphins last week to create some hope that CB2 won’t be an abject weakness for Buffalo this week.

Elam was smart and tough and fast. All of his physical abilities and potential were on display as he hung in play after play against Miami’s elite top two receivers. This was the guy the Bills were hoping to get when they spent that 1st round pick on Elam back in the spring. To be fair, it’s only one good game. I believe Elam was responsible for allowing both DeVante Parker touchdowns the week before against the Patriots. This is not yet a player Sean McDermott can fully trust. I would still start Elam this week and see if the improved play continues. But Jackson should be standing right next to Leslie Frazier with his helmet on for every snap.

The Bills dominated on defense last year without much of a pass rush because they had an incredibly sticky secondary. Taron Johnson has been good all this season. Tre White continues to improve (I thought he had his most consistently good game of the year against the Dolphins). If the Bills get another quality performance out of Elam, they might be able to approach what made that defense so successful last year.

Number Two Is Number One

There’s a thought in the NFL the last couple years that the difference between playoff winners and playoff losers is the #2 receiver. Tee Higgins and Odell Beckham getting to the Super Bowl 56 sure seems to confirm that assumption. They were two of the best in the game last year that weren’t Number 1’s.

Yep, Gabe Davis. We are looking at you. The Bills Number 2 has been incredible in his last three playoff games, totaling 355 yards receiving with six touchdowns. In a game where both offenses should score a ton of points, the Bills are gonna have to keep up and that likely requires another quality performance from Davis.

I would get him involved early. I think the difficult low catch that had to be reviewed and overturned was an early confidence boost last weekend against the Dolphins. Davis is much better against zone defenses (6th in the NFL for yards per catch against zone, per Pro Football Focus). Not a surprise for a player that has struggled with contested catches. Get Davis a couple targets in space early and get him comfortable. I think it could go a long way towards another Playoff Gabe type game.

May The Best Superstar Win

There has been a lot of talk lately about what is wrong with Josh Allen. Or even is anything wrong with Josh Allen. While the eye test says that Allen’s last few games have not been super good, his season-long numbers compare very favorably with his great season in 2021.

I think some of the answer might lie in the progression of Allen’s last two seasons. In 2021 and 2022, Allen has noticeably declined after his first six games. Both seasons, his yards per attempt has dropped about 15% while his touchdowns per attempt fell 20% over the last two-thirds of his year. At the same time, Allen’s interception rate has doubled. The 2020 numbers show a similar, but not nearly as stark a decrease. Three years is way too small a sample size in what should be a long career, but so far, Allen has been a better September/October quarterback.

I think some of the issue this year has been a lack of trust in the pieces around him. Secondary receivers have struggled most of the season. The offensive line has definitely been below average. It appears Allen has attempted to carry the offense by himself at times and especially the times when Stefon Diggs is being double or triple teamed. Even with a talent like Allen, there are plenty of occasions where that doesn’t work out too well.

We’re at the point in the season where quarterback play often trumps all. This probably also goes for Burrow and the Bengals, but the winning team Sunday will probably need the better quarterback. At the very least, Allen can’t be worse than the guy calling signals on the other side.

Betting Things

Big 3-0 sweep last week gets me to 27-25 for the year. I’m now up 4.9 units.

  • Allen over 47.5 rushing yards. Time for Big Game Josh to show up. That usually means extra scrambles and called runs for the Bills quarterback. Fair warning: Allen has not reached this number his last three games, but last week against Miami was only the second playoff game of seven where he’s been below 50 yards on the ground.
  • Joe Mixon under 48.5 rushing yards. One of the few things the Bengals are very not good at is running the ball. With their offensive line in a bit of shambles (get to that in a sec), I don’t see Cincy opening too many holes against the Bills. The Bengals haven’t needed Mixon on the ground much this year, either. He’s been under this number in three of his last four and five of his last eight–all Cincinnati wins.
  • Davis over 56.5 receiving yards. Cincinnati CB2 Eli Apple has been terrible this season. Pro Football Focus his him ranked as the 66th best corner in coverage out of 71 who have played 50% of snaps. Plus, Bengals slot corner Mike Hilton is one of the best in the game. I think the Bills focus their passing game more to the outside, so I’m gonna ride with Playoff Gabe.
  • Also like: Dawson Knox anytime touchdown. Five games in a row now where he has scored. I’m definitely putting some money on this again.

The Pick

You might notice none of my Things discuss the Bengals beaten-up offensive line. That’s by design. Cincy is missing three of their normal starting five O-Linemen this week. They have lost one starter each of the last three games.

The Bills just went up against a depleted offensive line last week with the Dolphins and the front four pass rush did just about nothing. I don’t expect anything to be different in this game. That doesn’t mean the Bills can’t take advantage of Cincinnati’s injury situation. Buffalo can win the same way they did last weekend: with blitzing. Don’t attack Cincinnati’s lack of physical ability. Attack their lack of familiarity and communication issues. Confuse them. Get them thinking. It worked last week for two Matt Milano sacks. I think it also should work this week.

I could make your eyeballs bleed talking about every little nook and cranny this game. These are two super teams with stars on both sides of the ball. There are fascinating matchups and talking points all over the field.

You could schedule this game a 100 times and each team might win 50. All that will matter is who plays a better game on this particular afternoon. Who gets the bounces to go their way. Who gets more calls. The small things that are usually impossible to predict will probably end up the difference.

I know many are wondering and are excited to see if Damar Hamlin will make an appearance before the game. Hamlin has been visiting the team, but a few minutes with friends in a quiet locker room are miles different from the center of attention in front of 70-thousand football fans lathered up for a playoff game. I would love to see it because, for once, the home team could do something that would get the visiting team just as fired up. Every breathing human in Highmark Stadium would get a lift from seeing Hamlin for just a moment. It would be a great moment.

I picked Cincinnati to beat the Bills in the regular season game for three reasons. They were the home team. They were the team with healthier stars. They were the team with the coaching staff I trust more. The Bengals coaches have two road playoff wins already under their belt. The last time Sean McDermott coached a road game, “13 Seconds” entered the lexicon of Bills disasters. There is no bad coaching staff in this game, but if you ask me to pick one for a big playoff, I’m still going to roll with Cincinnati.

That said, Cincy is not the home team this week. And I think their patchwork offensive line makes them the team in worse shape, injury-wise.

As a neutral observer of this game, I think back to how much fun the Bills-Chiefs divisional playoff was last year. I want to see that game again and I think there’s a very good chance we get something epic this week.

I think Allen takes better care of the ball this week if only because he can’t take worse care of it than last week. I think the Bills keep doing what they’ve been doing. They find a way. Give me the Bills 34-30.