CINCINNATI (WCMH) — The Cincinnati Bengals are one win away from returning to the AFC championship game but first have to face one of their toughest tests yet.
Cincinnati will play at the Buffalo Bills at 3 p.m. Sunday in an AFC divisional-round playoff game that many think could be the closest of the weekend. The Bengals are coming off a 24-17 opening-round win over the Baltimore Ravens, with the win spearheaded by Sam Hubbard, a former Ohio State defensive end, returning a fumble 98 yards for a touchdown.
While the offense has had a tough time scoring in consecutive games against Baltimore, quarterback Joe Burrow and company should feel more confident against a Bills defense gave up 31 points to a Miami team playing a rookie quarterback.
Here are three things to know about the Bengals’ showdown with the Bills:
The sports world came to a stop the last time Cincinnati and Buffalo played, on Jan. 2 at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati. During the first quarter, Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest moments after tackling Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. The game was suspended about an hour after Hamlin was taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and never completed.
Hamlin returned to Buffalo, New York, a week later to continue his recovery and to keep cheering on the Bills. There’s even a chance he could be at Highmark Stadium for the game, with coach Sean McDermott confirming that Hamlin has shown up at the Bills’ facilities daily.
“Very much looking forward to a rematch with Buffalo,” Bengals center Ted Karras said. “I know the last time we played was a crazy circumstance, so it’ll be good to have that matchup.”
Bengals defense cut loose
The Bengals’ defense has momentum after making the decisive play against Baltimore. On third-and-goal for the Ravens, quarterback Tyler Huntley attempted to jump over the Cincinnati pile but was blocked in basketball-like fashion by Bengals defender Logan Wilson, with Hubbard recovering the fumble and sprinting all the way to the other end zone.
“Run faster, Sam! Go! Get there!,” quarterback Joe Burrow said on what he was thinking during the play. “He actually did look pretty fast, surprisingly.”
Cincinnati’s defense hasn’t given up 20 points in a game in a month and ranks as the sixth-best in the NFL on average points allowed. And next is quarterback Josh Allen and a Bills offense that committed three turnovers last week and still scored 34 points.
“We’ve got a lot of big-name guys on offense, but we know as a defense that we consider ourselves the heart and soul of the team,” Hubbard said. “We take pride in that.”
O-line injuries piling up
Cincinnati played Baltimore without two of its starters on the offensive line. It might play Buffalo without three and is a big reason the Bengals are five-point underdogs.
“We know that we’re the defending AFC champions, so there’s edge to this team where we’re not an underdog to anybody,” coach Zac Taylor said. “We don’t really care what somebody else says about us.”
During the second quarter against the Ravens, left tackle Jonah Williams suffered a dislocated knee and is week to week. Right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La’el Collins are dealing with injuries and could miss the game as well.
With backups Max Scharping, Hakeem Adeniji and Jackson Carman stepping in, Burrow was sacked four times against the Ravens. Cincinnati made the Super Bowl last year despite allowing more than a dozen sacks in postseason games, including nine in its divisional round win over the Titans.
“Everyone has trust in everybody in that locker room to put in the work to get their job done and so whenever one guys goes down, you throw another guy in and the expectation is there’s not going to be a drop off and there really hasn’t been,” Burrow said. “Last year, Hakeem was a starter, Max was a starter and Jackson was a starter at some point in the year, so we have a lot of faith in all those guys.”
Buffalo’s defensive line had the 14th most sacks (40) during the regular season, meaning Burrow might have to deal with a lot of pressure.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of the offensive line, “I’d assess them as, they’re fighting and giving us a chance.”