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paul16_top105.5 THE TEAM – The Bills are on to Cincinnati for the first of seven, final regular season games. At 4-5, the margin for error is slim, so it goes without saying that if they want to have any shot at the postseason it has to start with a win over the Bengals.

That’s actually very doable.

A year removed from winning the AFC North, Cincinnati has underwhelmed immensely this season, carrying a 3-5-1 record. Even with the very talented A.J. Green at wide receiver, their offense is far less explosive than it was in 2015. Defensively – similar to Buffalo – their secondary has struggled.

This is a very winnable game for the Bills. Here’s three things they must do to get that done…

1) Control the Bengals vertical passing attack

The Bengals have a solid rushing attack that is accounting for 115.6 yards per game on average, but the focal point of their offense is A.J. Green. He is one of the best receivers in the league after all. Anyway, they love to throw the ball over your head. Through nine games, quarterback Andy Dalton has completed 19 passes of 25 yards or more, 42 percent of which went to Green. By the way of those 19 plays, 10 of them went for more than 40 yards. Very impressive for Cincy, but concerning for a Bills secondary that has already surrendered seven completions of 50 or more yards – that’s more than any season during the 16-year playoff drought. In order to get a win, that trend will have to change.

2) Quiet Geno Atkins on offense, bring the heat on defense

When the Bills offense is on the field, that means DT Geno Atkins will be lined up on the defensive line for Cincinnati. Atkins anchors a Bengals pass rush that has 60 QB hurries so far this season, 11th most in the NFL. Making matters worse, the Bills are without Pro Bowl center Eric Wood in the middle of their o-line, leaving Ryan Groy with some big shoes to fill. Hopefully his transition to a starter goes smoothly, because generally as a unit, Buffalo’s offensive line does a terrific job neutralizing an opponent’s best pass rusher. images

On the flip side, Buffalo boasts one of the best all-around pass rushing units in the league, paced by the league leader in sacks Lorenzo Alexander. As a whole, the Bills defense leads the league in sacks entering Week 11, while Cincinnati’s offensive line has been allowing them at an alarming rate. Andy Dalton has been sacked 28 times this season – the third most in the NFL – which is already more times than each of the last two seasons. It’s a real problem for the Bengals, and one that should leave a relentless group of Bills pass rushers chomping at the bit. There will be plenty of opportunities to get after the quarterback.

3) Don’t be afraid to pass

Last season the Bengals had one of the most stout defensive units in the NFL. This year, not so much. Their rushing defense is yielding 116.6 yards per game, which plays right into the Bills strength on offense. However, there’s an argument to be made that the Bengals secondary has been a bigger liability. Entering Week 11 the unit ranks 21st in yards per pass allowed, 20th in opponent passer rating and 22nd in opponent completion percentage. As much as Buffalo is a run-first team, the woes in Cincinnati’s back end are too blatant to ignore. We’ve spent the last two weeks raving about how much Tyrod Taylor looked like a franchise quarterback in Buffalo’s heartbreaking, Week 9 loss to Seattle; he should have plenty of opportunities to prove it wasn’t a fluke this weekend.

Key Stat:

It’s all about interceptions this week. The Bills haven’t had one in four consecutive games – the longest stretch of games a Rex Ryan coached team has ever gone without one. You have to go back to 2001 and his days as a defensive line coach in Baltimore to pinpoint the last time that even happened to a team he was associated with. Meanwhile, the Bengals are 1-2-1 this season in games that Andy Dalton has thrown an interception. Additionally, Dalton is 9-10-1 in games where he’s thrown two or more interceptions. In last year’s meeting between these two teams – a 34-21 win for Cincinnati – Dalton torched the Bills defense for 243 passing yards, three touchdowns and not a single pick There’s no time like the present for Buffalo to snare an interception or two and halt that four game skid without one.

Injury Report: 

At the start of the week Rex Ryan proclaimed that post-bye his team was the healthiest they’ve been all season. The Week 11 injury report certainly suggests that. DT Corbin Bryant (shoulder) is the only Bill ruled out for Sunday at this point, while five others are questionable.

Three of those five are wide receivers: Robert Woods (foot), Walter Powell (hip) and Justin Hunter (groin), who were all limited at practice on Friday.

The other two are OLB Jerry Hughes (hand) and DT Marcell Dareus (groin). Hughes has played with this hand ailment for several weeks now, so expect much of the same for him. In regards to Dareus, Rex Ryan was cautiously optimistic that he’ll be suiting up this weekend. His exact quote on the subject, “I don’t want to cat myself, but I’m feeling pretty good about the big man.”

Storyline to keep an eye on:

There were plenty of starting jobs up for grabs this week both in the secondary and along the offensive line and many of those position battles will carry over to Sunday. Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn mentioned that a rotation of Jordan Mills, Seantrel Henderson and Cyrus Kouandjio at right tackle is very likely. At that left cornerback spot, Rex Ryan noted that second-year man Ronald Darby responded well to having his job taken away in practice, but wouldn’t commit to him as a starter just yet. As far as the nickel CB is concerned it sounds like both Nickell Robey-Coleman and rookie Kevon Seymour will get some run against Cincinnati. The Bills hope that open competitions at those spots will lead to better results on the field, so it’s worth watching for individuals to stand out.

My Prediction:

Back when the schedule was released this was one of the games I put in the “gonna be tough” category. Cincinnati had just won the AFC East and even after another first-round collapse in the playoffs, remained equipped with a solid defense and some scary weapons on offense. Fast forward through the first ten weeks of the season and here we are with a 3-5-1 Bengals team that can’t stop anyone on defense and are pretty predictable on offense. Meanwhile, the Bills are healthy coming off a bye and are desperate for a win. The offense should have no problem moving the ball on Cincinnati. Mostly I’m looking for Taylor to repeat what he did in Settle. Where things get tricky is on defense, where the Bengals vertical pass game spells trouble for an often feeble Bills secondary. Will these open competitions and player rotations pay off for the Bills? I think so. Bills get back to .500, 31-21.

Follow me on Twitter: @Spencito6