It’s getting to a critical time of the season for the Buffalo Bills. If they don’t want to end the year with a 17th straight season of no playoffs, the wins need to start rolling in… and quickly.
The Bills (4-5) are next up against the Cincinnati Bengals (3-5-1) on the road, in what could effectively serve as an elimination game for an AFC Wild Card spot in the postseason. A loss to the Bengals and the Bills would drop to 1-5 in the conference, and another loss to a team they could potentially be in a tiebreaker with.
How do the Bills stack up against the Bengals? Five things to watch in the upcoming contest:
1) Geno Atkins could take over
- While A.J. Green and Andy Dalton get all the publicity for the Cincinnati Bengals, the man that can single-handedly help them secure a victory this weekend will be right in the middle of their defensive line: Geno Atkins. This, to me, is the runaway winner as the biggest mismatch in the game for either team, because its both featuring one of the best players in the league at his position in Atkins, and he’ll mostly be going up against Ryan Groy, a struggling player making his first ever start for the Bills. The Bills simply must avoid this becoming a one-on-one matchup in the game at all cost. The Seattle defensive tackles are solid but nothing special in comparison to what Atkins is able to do on the field, and Groy struggled a great deal in the Bills’ final two offensive series in Week Nine. Bills offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said that they’ll have a plan for Atkins on Sunday, and it might just look similar to how they went up against Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams. There are a couple of key differences from that matchup to this one, though. With Donald and the Rams, Eric Wood was still in the lineup and helped keep him from making an impact. Second, Donald was the only usual starting defensive lineman playing in that game, so the game plan was pretty simple: assign all the attention to him, and trust the rest of the offensive line to block their men in one-on-one situations. Atkins, on the other hand, will be going up against Groy, and has the talented Carlos Dunlap playing right next to him on most snaps. With the Bills likely to double, and maybe even triple team Atkins in order to help Groy, I’d expect to see Dunlap and Atkins get creative with different stunts to get them freed up. The Bills have to worry about a few different players, but based on the matchup, Atkins appears to be biggest game breaker.
2) Another big day for Hughes in store
- On the flip side, the Bills have another completely winnable matchup in store for top pass rusher Jerry Hughes against the Bengals. He’ll mainly be lining up over the right tackle, and the Bengals will use the struggling Cedric Ogbuehi at right tackle once more. Hughes added another sack to his season, furthering the proof that while it may not show it overwhelmingly from a statistical perspective, this is the best season Hughes has had in his NFL career. The Bengals will need to assign help over to Ogbuehi, otherwise Hughes will either have his own impact on the backfield, or set the table for one of his impressive rushing defensive teammates. That’s the trouble for the Bengals: they have to pick their poison. The Bills will have Marcell Dareus back in the lineup, along with Hughes, Kyle Williams, and Lorenzo Alexander. There’s only so much help they can assign to any single offensive linemen, so someone will be getting a one-on-one matchup that really shouldn’t be based on their talent and performances this season. Dareus will get his chance to make an impact against center Russell Bodine, but really it’s Hughes that can force the issue in the pocket.
3) Stopping A.J. Green and the vertical game will be vital
- Right in line with getting pressure on Andy Dalton in the backfield is how much it can have an impact on the Bengals other big game breaker. A.J. Green is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and with how poorly the secondary of the Bills performed over the last two weeks, it stands as a major advantage for the Bengals if they can successfully get him involved. The Bills will be trying a few different combinations in the secondary to try and slow down Green. If I’m the Bengals, I’m lining up A.J. Green predominantly on the right side of the offense and against the left cornerbacks of the Bills. Ronald Darby’s starting job has come into question this week by the head coach, which has opened the door for veteran journeyman Corey White. Darby is a talented player, and he showed that last season as one of the top defensive rookies in the league. However, the Bengals should absolutely try to test him just to see where the second-year player’s confidence level is at. When White is in the game, that is a massive mismatch in favor of the Bengals due to Green’s height advantage and the talent gap between the two players. They’ll need quite a bit of safety help, either way. Green could dominate the game for Cincinnati.
4) Tyrod can be the X-Factor
- Against Seattle, quarterback Tyrod Taylor took a step forward, playing his best game of the season despite the Bills coming up short by the end of it all. For the Bills to take the steps toward the postseason in the upcoming contest, they’re going to need Taylor to continue his progress — especially against a talented team like the Bengals. However, there are a few weaknesses to Cincinnati’s defense — most specifically when attacking them through the air. The fine folks over at FootballOutsiders.com calculate defensive efficiency rankings each and every week, and it points to two main targets to attack. The first is cornerback Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones, who is usually spending time covering the number two wideout for teams, and has struggled so much so that the Bengals rank fifth-worst against the secondary receiver. That produces an opportunity for both Percy Harvin and Marquise Goodwin, whichever of the two are on the field at any given time. The other player that could have a big game for the Bills is tight end Charles Clay, though admittedly it’s starting to feel and sound like a futile mention considering the Taylor and Clay just don’t connect regularly enough for him to be a true game breaker. Even still, according to Football Outsiders, the Bengals have ranked 29th against opposing team’s tight ends this season, which would make it into a solid matchup for Clay. However, I wouldn’t hold your breath with Clay. They need to prove he can be a valuable asset of the passing attack consistently before being seen as a spot of strength for the team.
5) Seantrel’s chance to take over
- What a wild ride it’s been for third-year offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson. After starting for the Bills his entire rookie season and then into November of his second season, Henderson was never really a strong point of the offensive line. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and from that point it started a year that included intestinal surgery, a large amount of weight loss, and having to change his diet entirely. That said, Henderson seems to be finally back to himself and is back up over the 310-pound mark. He looks faster, fluid in his movements, and he looks like he’s in the best shape he’s been in since starting in the NFL. On Sunday, he’ll get his first chance to shine in 2016. Now, I wouldn’t expect Henderson to get the full game at right tackle, but the Bills have made it abundantly clear that they love the progress he’s made, and that they haven’t been happy with Jordan Mills’ performance at right tackle. Former second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio will figure into the right tackle rotation as well, at least according to offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. It will be a tough draw for all three players, mainly going against the long and strong Carlos Dunlap, but the Bills will be waiting for one of those three to grab hold of the job and not let it go. After seeing how well Henderson has been moving at practice, the only thing he needs to prove is that he can withstand the power moves and bull rush attempts from defenders. If he does that in Cincinnati well enough, there’s a good chance he takes the job and doesn’t let it go.
OUT: DL Corbin Bryant (shoulder)
QUESTIONABLE: OLB Jerry Hughes (hand), WR Walt Powell (hip), WR Robert Woods (foot), DL Marcell Dareus (groin), WR Justin Hunter (groin)
DOUBTFUL: TE C.J. Uzomah (calf)
QUESTIONABLE: DE Wallace Gilberry (calf)
Prediction: Bills over Bengals
- This game is a true tossup. Both teams need this game in the worst way, considering the AFC Wild Card race, and the Bengals could certainly use it to get back in the discussion for the AFC North title, too. Really, this game comes down to a few key matchups — and the first of which is Geno Atkins against the middle of the Bills’ offensive line. If the Bills can contain this matchup, they stand a great chance to move the ball effectively both on the ground and through the air. They’ll need to lean on both Richie Incognito and John Miller to make sure that Atkins doesn’t tilt the game. The second matchup is two-fold: I think the Bills have a great opportunity to win the battle at the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball, with the combination of Dareus, Williams, Hughes, and Alexander. While there are solid parts to Cincinnati’s offensive line, I think the talent of the Bills along the defensive line wins out, which can then minimize the pressure on the secondary. A.J. Green will get his receptions and yardage like he does every week, but the Bills must be able to contain the rest of Bengals air attack — and most notably Tyler Eifert. That’s where Zach Brown and Corey Graham must win. At the end of the day, I think the play of the Bills defensive line will be able to do enough damage and help key them to a victory. I’m expecting a tight game that will come down to the wire, but ultimately, I’ve got the Bills pulling out a game that they desperately need.
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