The Buffalo Payments may very well be a win away on this 2022 NFL season from securing the AFC’s prime seed and home-field benefit all through the playoffs. If all goes properly, they’re a month away from their purpose of wresting the AFC championship away from the Cincinnati Bengals, incomes their first Tremendous Bowl look since January 1994.
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However proper now, that title belongs to the Bengals heading into their “Monday Night time Soccer” matchup, giving operating again Joe Mixon a chance to do some trash-talking.
“On the finish of the day … we the massive canine of the AFC and that’s simply what it’s,” Mixon defined Saturday. “For something to occur, it goes via us.”
On paper, Mixon is totally proper. The Bengals enter on an AFC-best seven-game win streak and sit only a recreation behind Buffalo within the playoff race. Wins Monday evening and the next week, plus one Kansas Metropolis loss, would swing the tiebreakers again the Bengals’ manner and make all roads to the Tremendous Bowl run via them – not frigid, snowy Buffalo.
For the Payments, this recreation brings them one step nearer to clinching their all-important cold-weather benefit. A win, their seventh straight, and a Chiefs loss would go away the highest spot within the playoffs clinched heading right into a regular-season finale the place they’d breathe a sigh of reduction. It may additionally knock Cincinnati out of the lead in its division, forcing the Bengals to play each playoff recreation on the street.
Either side are clearly conscious of the stakes, and their matchup makes historical past: 23 wins mixed ties probably the most for any two “Monday Night time Soccer” groups because the league began enjoying the weekday prime-time recreation in 1970.
“I feel it’s going to be the sport of the 12 months,” stated Bengals extensive receiver Tyler Boyd earlier this week. “If you happen to miss this recreation, you’re not a real soccer fan… it’s going to be electrifying.”
Monday Night time Soccer: Buffalo (12-3) at Cincinnati (11-4)
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 2 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Dwell Stream: fuboTV (Begin your free trial)
Unfold: Payments -1.5
Tickets: As little as $249 on SITickets.com*
Three Issues to Watch
1. Josh Allen vs. Joe Burrow
Two of the premier quarterbacks within the recreation will match up for the primary time of their NFL careers. Each males rank inside the highest 5 within the AFC for each main passing class: completions, makes an attempt, yards, passer ranking, touchdowns, and yards per try.
However as unbelievable as these superstars have been, week in and week out, there’s one essential class we will’t go away off the listing: interceptions. The duo threw a complete of 4 final week alone, and in Burrow’s case, a pick-six sparked a New England Patriots near-comeback after beginning the sport down 22-0.
Each gamers are the identical age (26) and share the identical offseason quarterback guru in Jordan Palmer. That’s led to a rising friendship between the 2, spilling over into the general public eye this week as all sides talked about mutual respect.
“It’s been tremendous spectacular to look at and see his entire story,” Allen stated this week. “Going to Ohio State, transferring out, spending two years at LSU, and arguably having one of many biggest seasons ever in faculty historical past. He’s received a heckuva story.”
“We’re pals,” Burrow added. “We’ve frolicked fairly a bit. All people that watches Josh, there’s no secret about why he’s so good. He’s enjoyable to look at, he runs round. He makes performs. He makes throws that no person else could make. He’s simply an thrilling participant, an awesome participant that it’s going to be enjoyable to go up towards him.”
Count on each gamers to place up Professional Bowl-worthy performances. But when both aspect has an edge, I’d lean towards Burrow. Allen has had an ungainly historical past the previous two months of throwing a couple of ugly interceptions within the purple zone, costing his crew in back-to-back weeks in losses towards the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings. Burrow, regardless of 4 interceptions during the last three weeks, has been a contact extra constant total.
An enormous key’s how the Bengals’ offensive line recovers from proper sort out La’el Collins’ season-ending ACL harm final week. After permitting 29 sacks in the course of the first eight video games, that quantity’s dropped to 10 throughout this seven-game win streak. Can a middling Buffalo defensive position get constant strain with out star Von Miller, out for the season along with his personal ACL tear?
2. Which protection could make an enormous play?
The Bengals are hoping a 50/50 shot goes their manner for star defensive finish Sam Hubbard, a game-time determination after struggling a calf harm final month towards Tampa Bay. His 6.5 sacks, a pressured fumble, and 50 quarterback pressures make him one of many few able to breaking via and making Allen’s evening troublesome.
Whereas each groups have 20-plus takeaways this season, the Payments have had only one interception within the final six video games. The Bengals (three) aren’t significantly better throughout their current sizzling streak, permitting a minimum of 211 internet passing yards throughout every of the final six weeks.
So, who may break via on both aspect and produce a takeaway that makes the distinction? For the Payments, all eyes are on defensive finish A.J. Epenesa, making an attempt to step up in Miller’s absence: he has three sacks and a pressured fumble within the final 4 video games alone. Count on fellow lineman Greg Rousseau to additionally make an influence.
The Bengals, in the meantime, hope Hubbard returns at an A-plus degree to excel alongside Trey Hendrickson (six sacks). It’s a crew that believes their defensive unit, whereas nonetheless permitting factors, has kicked it up a notch over the previous two months of play.
However the Payments’ protection additionally is available in motivated after a couple of ill-advised feedback from Boyd earlier within the week.
“It’s type of fundamental,” he defined in detailing the Payments’ scheme. “They don’t do an excessive amount of disguising – it’s type of easy, they don’t do all of the trickery issues that we’ve seen so much from defenses. However once more man, they enjoying us. Each crew type of prepares in a different way for us.”
We’ll see if the Payments suppose that bulletin-board materials gives a little bit further motivation.
3. Particular groups
There’s all the time one thing funky that occurs in a detailed recreation like this one. Keep watch over the arrogance of kicker Evan McPherson, whose honeymoon with the Bengals has taken a success after one other missed further level and off-target area purpose final weekend towards the Patriots. His 4 missed PATs total lead the AFC, whereas 5 missed area objectives have already tied final 12 months’s whole with two video games left on the schedule.
Tyler Bass from the Payments has been distinctive however bumped into his personal set of issues final week. He missed an additional level and a 38-yard area purpose to go away his crew down 10-6 on the finish of the primary half final weekend towards the Bears. However Bass additionally has gone six-for-six on area purpose makes an attempt in a single recreation this 12 months, tying a crew report he shares with Steve Christie.
Two of the AFC’s three greatest groups needs to be anticipated to go punch for punch all through the evening. Whereas each defenses are distinctive, it’s simple to see the offenses taking middle stage with all main weapons on either side wholesome. Keep watch over wild playing cards like Mixon and Payments operating again Devin Singletary, key choices for pass-heavy groups to modify it up when obligatory. Mixon piled up 108 whole dashing and receiving yards final week whereas Singletary quietly had his first 100-yard efficiency of the 12 months towards the Bears.
Ultimately, I’d anticipate it to be a last drive sort of recreation, circumstances wherein Burrow has shined all through his younger profession. In a toss-up like this one, go along with the quarterback who’s already confirmed he can get to the promised land as a substitute of the one who’s been stopped simply quick.
As Mixon stated, the Bengals are nonetheless the “large canines” based mostly on final 12 months’s efficiency. Buffalo goes to have to return in and take it from them.
Prediction: Bengals 34, Payments 31
— Written by Tom Bowles, who’s a part of the Athlon Contributor Community. Comply with him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
*Value as of publication.