Bills quarterback Thad Lewis has already made a throw in this one Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) by tossing all the pressure on the Bengals by merely making just his second NFL start at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Bengals.com media roundtable is in unanimous agreement that Cincinnati responds to go to 4-2, but while some see squeakers, some also see blowouts.
Jerry Sullivan, the voice of Buffalo sports for a generation as the versatile and voluminous sports columnist of The Buffalo News, calls it a squeaker. He sees the challenges the Bills defense presents for the struggling Bengals offense, but he also thinks quarterback Andy Dalton can decipher it in time with his intermediate accuracy.
But Mark Gaughan, the long-time beat * Buffalo News *reporter who just finished serving as the president of the Pro Football Writers, sees a 10-point win for the Bengals because Lewis won't be able to decipher Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
ESPN.com's Coley Harvey, the newest addition to the Bengals beat, draws on his experience as a college football reporter to predict a big victory for the Bengals defense. At the* Macon Telegraph, he covered Georgia Tech for three seasons and caught Lewis playing for Duke before Harvey moved on to the Orlando Sentinel* to cover Florida State for two years.
USA Today's Jim Corbett spent this week in Cleveland checking out the Browns, but he still thinks the Bengals and Ravens are the class of the AFC North and believes the Bengals can make a run for the AFC second seed behind Denver. But, he says, they need a decisive win Sunday, and he says they get it.
Let's go around the table:
I think the biggest matchup may be the Bengals' other weapons on the Bills linebackers. From what I've been hearing from afar about Giovani Bernard, he's going to be a big factor in this game and the Bengals tight ends present challenges.
The linebackers haven't been burned much in coverage, but Manny Lawson is one of them. He's had a great year here protecting the edge, but coverage is a reason he's not playing in Cincinnati anymore. I think the Bills are vulnerable there. It could be an issue and it has been over the years.
You've got a Rookie of the Year they want to put in the Hall of Fame, Bills middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, the Defensive Rookie of the Month, against Bernard, a rookie running back that is the type of player that can give them trouble because he's a multiple talent guy and can run. They haven't really been tested by a diverse offense with weapons. Cincinnati has a lot of those types of weapons they can use in the linebacker area.
Gilmore is by far their best corner, but it's questionable if he'll be ready to take on Green because he hasn't played yet.
The Bills have to figure out who is going to block Geno Atkins. We've got a guy who has been watching that 2011 Bengals-Bills game and Geno is blowing up whoever they had at left guard. They haven't played well at left guard this year but (left tackle) Cordy Glenn has played well. They could be in trouble without Stevie Johnson, their best wide receiver. He didn't practice at all this week. Robert Woods is a rookie that was turning into E.J. Manuel's favorite target, but he'll be going against a veteran secondary.
They move all over on defense, so it's really hard to come up with any individual matchups. Pass rusher Mario Williams has been better. They move all over and they blitz from anywhere. It's the center against the world. They've been coming right up the middle. Between tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, and Alonso's blitzes, the Bengals have to block up the middle. Whatever issues Dalton has had in the pocket and having a good pocket, they'll be tested by these guys. Especially at The Ralph. They'll come after you.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 16-13. I don't think Dalton is going to come in on the road and be that productive against this defense. Flacco was a joke. He threw five picks. I just don't think Thad Lewis can do what Brady, Rodgers and Roethlisberger didn't. Which is have a really good game against your defense. He's coming off the practice squad. The Bengals will get at least one turnover that turns the game. Who knows? I've missed every game this year. I just can't see this kid Lewis beating the Bengals defense, unless it's 6-3 or something. It will be a low-scoring game decided by Dalton's ability to be efficient on the intermediate routes where I think the Bills are weak.
The two matchups I'm looking at are the Bills backup quarterback Thad Lewis in his second NFL start against Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green against Bills cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin
The Bills have a very good running game, but the Bengals are going to load up on the run and say to Thad Lewis, "Let's see what you've got. If you beat us, go ahead."
Lewis has had only one start, so we really don't know what he is, but obviously if you're Mike Zimmer you're a lot more worried about running back C. J. Spiller than Thad Lewis. The opportunity is going be there for Thad Lewis to hit some passes if he can. It's hard to say what Thad Lewis is. He's a Duke quarterback. Yes, he can run the read option. We'll see a little bit of drop back and the Bills won't abandon the run if they have a lack of success. But there's s no other way. Lewis has to complete some passes.
On the other side, I think the Bills front seven is very good and I don't think the Bengals are going to run a lot on Buffalo. The best thing for the Bengals will be to get wide receiver A.J. Green more involved than he was against the Browns and the Patriots. Gilmore broke his hand in the third preseason game, hasn't played yet this season, and the jury is out on how much he'll be able to play. I don't think they'll just lock him down on A.J. Green. They'll play sides and not shadow and they'll give help. Gilmore is very good if he's 100 percent. McKelvin is off to a good start this season, but he had trouble with A.J. Green two years ago in Cincinnati.
The Bengals ran for 162 yards on New England, but that's a Bill Belichick thing. Belichick says, 'OK, A.J. Green is not going to beat me at all costs. If that means I have to give up rushing yards to Giovani Bernard and Law Firm, I'm willing to do that.' I think he felt like he'd give up the rushing yards and they'd still be in position to win and they were.
The Bengals need to get it to A.J. Belichick is better at taking away your No. 1 option than most coaches. Whether they move him around him or put him in the slot. They have to do whatever they have to do to get him more involved. He's their guy. He's the talent the Bills don't have an answer.
THE EDGE: Bengals 27-17. Andy Dalton lost to Brian Hoyer. If he loses to Thad Lewis, the Bengals have real problems.
I think one of the bigger matchups is the Bengals defensive line against the zone read. I don't think the Bills are going to run the zone read all that often because Thad Lewis isn't E.J. Manuel. He's going to be sitting in the pocket a little more.
He was more of a pocket guy at Duke. He had seven games his senior year where he threw for more than 300 yards and two for more than 400, so he s got a big arm. I think we'll see more of that. But it's going to be interesting to see how the ends respect the zone read.
The Bills have a good front seven. The blocking of the Bengals running backs and the tight ends hasn't been the greatest this year and when you've got a guy like Alonso that comes out of the secondary for Buffalo, that's going to be critical in the passing game and how they'll be able to prevent him from getting penetration because he's shown the ability to do that.
It's going to be interesting to see what A.J. does. Every week it seems like there have been two guys on him and we'll see if he's able to finally negotiate that and actually get into space.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-10. I think the defense will be too strong and I think this offense is finally going to get going. It's going to be a little bit of a different matchup with them defensively than what they've faced the last few weeks. The Bills defense is very good, but I think we're finally seeing the Bengals get that balance and I think they'll score a couple of touchdowns and there might even be a defensive touchdown in there.
I think the Bengals are just starting to feel their oats after the big win over New England. They made the play at the end that good teams do. They found a way to beat Brady when it was all set up for him. As up and down as they've been, I think they're one of the most, if not the most, talented team in the AFC. Houston has fallen back. New England they've beaten. Whose better? Denver. Are they better than Kansas City? I think so when you go from top to bottom on the roster.
Until Gronkowski comes back, New England isn't going to do much and struggle every week. Denver is on a different planet. Houston has fallen way down. The Jets are hard to explain. I'm here in Cleveland seeing what they're about. I think they're pretty good.
Ultimately, it comes down to the (Bengals) and Baltimore in the division as long as they gain some confidence. It's a should win. It's the type of game if they're going to be what they want to be, they've got to win this game.
I'm still not sold on Dalton. This team proved in the early weeks there are still question makes around him. For as much as we heard about how he worked on the deep ball and getting more weapons, it just hasn't materialized yet. Where is the big play? I saw Peyton Manning do that last week when he hit wide receiver Eric Decker with a strike down the seam. Sixty-five yards in the air. I don't see Andy doing that yet. He's got to be able to do that to take that next step.
Andy and A.J. aren't as dynamic as they were. But you would think they've got a lot at their disposal with a lot of other targets. They can win on defense. If you win a game on defense like they did last week, they'll grow.
I still think they have a chance to gain some confidence. When all is said and done they've got everything you need and everything you want.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 37-17. I agree the Bills are pretty good on defense. If you're looking for a Defensive Rookie of the Year, look no further than Bills middle linebacker Kiki Alonso. He's been all over the field. Right end Mario Williams is playing like they're paying him to. They've got a young coach and they've been set back by the injury to the quarterback, but they can run the ball and Spiller is an explosive player.
But you've got a quarterback who was on the practice squad two weeks ago. You have to stop Spiller and get after the quarterback and they're built to do that. This is a game where you should see the true Bengals come to the forefront. Not squeak one out. They've got to win this one pretty convincingly to show they're the next best team in the AFC, which they have a chance to be.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As much as the talk has swirled around how the Bengals defense has to take advantage of an unknown entity in quarterback Thad Lewis, this one is clearly in the lap of an offense that has scored just one touchdown in the last 124 minutes and faces a dangerous pass rush on the road.
It's hard to imagine the Bengals defense giving up more than two TDs to a journeyman QB with just 37 NFL passes. But can the Bengals offense score enough against the defense of Mike Pettine, a Rex Ryan disciple that offers no rhyme or reason much of the time, never mind a predictable alignment?
The Bengals offensive line is coming off its best game of the year with a 162-yard rushing effort against the Patriots and they'll have to be even better against a wide range of talent that is spearheaded by the 7.5 sacks of right end Mario Williams. There is also a Pro Bowler in tackle Kyle Williams, an emerging Pro Bowl tackle in Marcell Dareus, and the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in middle linebacker Kiko Alonso.
The Bengals will have to be more balanced to keep Williams and and Co., at bay and the line has to give Dalton some space to throw, which would suggest more of the running game. Someone must be running it on the Bills since they are 22nd in the league stopping the run, but the Bengals haven't been scoring on the road. After three long scoring drives in the opener in Chicago, they've gone 13 straight possessions without a road TD.
And while Cleveland's Brandon Weeden came off the bench to throw for nearly 200 yards against the Bills 10 days ago, the Buffalo secondary is going to have more people back. Yet with Pro Bowl safety Jarius Byrd and its best cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, making their season debuts, their production is a question mark.
(Green was a handful for McKelvin two years ago when he rang up 118 yards on just four catches. The Bengals could use the 58-yarder from that day.)
So it's time for those emerging weapons to step forward. The Bengals let go SAM backer Manny Lawson, in part, because he struggled in coverage and he's playing most of the snaps for the Bills. Buffalo leads the NFL with nine interceptions, four by the rookie Alonso while the Bengals have struggled to generate the big play.
Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green hasn't caught a ball longer than 20 yards since the opener, and no Cincinnati wide receiver has a catch of 40 yards since Green's pair in the opener. The biggest play to a wideout in the last four games is Mohamed Sanu's 32-yarder against the Packers on Sept. 22.
If the Bengals are going to win Sunday it's because they outscore the Bills and in order to do that against a pressure-oriented, opportunistic defense, they have to pop a couple of big plays against a high-risk, high-reward scheme.
One other thing to keep an eye on is the Bills special teams. Buffalo gave up a punt return TD to Cleveland's Travis Benjamin last time out, but the Bills have brought back long-time Pro Bowl punter Brian Moorman. The last time the Bengals saw Moorman was last Dec. 9 in Paul Brown Stadium against the Cowboys and he didn't react well to cornerback Adam Jones back there with a net average of 33.6 yards.