Five matchups to watch Monday (8:30 p.m.-ESPN, Cincinnati's Channel 9) when the 11-4 Bengals and the 12-3 Bills make history at Paycor Stadium in a game pitting teams tied for the most wins ever heading into a Monday night.
BENGALS QB JOE BURROW VS. BILLS DC LESLIE FRAZIER
Burrow (34) and Bills quarterback Josh Allen (32) come in with the most combined touchdown passes in a Monday night football game in history. But they are lighting it up in different shades of great.
Adjusting to varying degrees of zone (Cover Two, Two Tampa), Burrow has fewer than eight air yards per attempt for the first time in his three seasons while dominating the league underneath since week three, when he leads the league in touchdown passes, combined touchdowns and passer rating.
It should be more of the same with old friend Frazier. Frazier, former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' first defensive coordinator, led the Bills to the No. 1 ranking last season and has built the seventh-ranked unit this season in his image: Disciplined, fundamental, no-frills, all-out.
In this year's opener they sacked the Rams' Matthew Stafford seven times and didn't blitz at all during the game. According to Next Gen Stats, that was only the third time in six years a defense didn't blitz at least once in a game. All were three were Bills defenses with Sean McDermott as the head coach. They just don't give up big plays. They have the NFL's fifth-best defensive passer rating and are giving up just 6.6 yards per pass, fourth fewest in the league. They don't give up points, either, at just 17.5 per game.
Burrow is more than equipped to go underneath after going through a season of change.
"We saw a lot more Cover One last year," says offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "They really didn't know what Ja'Marr (Chase) was capable of and they found pretty out quickly and we've been a much more horizontal spacing passing team against all these Two Tampa. Which is why Joe is incredibly good against Cover Two right now. You can't space them vertically, you have to space them horizontally and we've done a good job with catch and runs as opposed to throwing the ball down field. He's playing with more efficiency and it's more sustainable. It's a more consistent brand of football."
They may not be letting him go deep, but Burrow has taken what he's been given and it may be the perfect antidote against Allen's second-ranked offense that has scored the second most points. In the face of the defensive drops Burrow has turned to an extremely effective possession passing game that has the Bengals third in the NFL in time of possession. If there's a game to steal a possession in each half with a long drive, this is it. In the seven-game winning streak, the Bengals have been under 31:36 just twice.
BENGALS MLB LOGAN WILSON VS. BILLS QB JOSH ALLEN
One Bengals coach says playing against the 6-5, 237-pound Allen is like playing against a Travis Kelce who can throw. Kelce is a Pro Bowl tight end, but Allen may be built even closer to a division rival in another Pro Bowl tight end, the Ravens' Mark Andrews, who goes 6-4, 255. The Bills own tight end threat, Dawson Knox, is 6-4, 255. Not exact. But you get the idea. If the Bengals needed to get a look in practice, they would have had to have gone with practice squad tight end Tanner Hudson, a 6-5, 240-pound high school quarterback.
It just shows you how rare Allen and Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo can't replicate him. He runs like Kelce, shakes off tackles like Big Ben in his prime and has a gun like Mahomes. After breaking the pocket, he can launch missiles. Allen has more rushing touchdowns (38) than all the Bills running backs combined (35) since he was drafted in 2018.
The 6-2, 242-pound Wilson saw it up close as his teammate at the University of Wyoming. He's a key guy in the middle of the defense, making sure Allen doesn't kill them with those runs he seems to extend because of missed tackles.
"Lou said you have to tackle him like he's a tight end," Wilson says. "He's not going down easy. He's a big guy. He's a load for sure."
Allen also leads the NFL in turnovers with 18 (13 interceptions, five fumbles) and the Bengals have come up with a fourth-quarter turnover in each of the last four games, winning two of them and sealing two of them. His buddy Wilson has done everything but get a turnover in the last three games (41 tackles, 2.5 sacks), but still leads all linebackers in the 2020s with seven interceptions. He has got Allen at least once, but that was in a long-ago Wyoming practice. In the winning streak, the Bengals are plus-five in turnovers.
BENGALS RT VS. BILLS DE GREG ROUSSEAU
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor won't say who is going to replace La'el Collins (ACL) as the Bengals cope with their first change in the starting offensive line all season. The 6-4, 315-pound Hakeem Adeniji has been the swing tackle all year. The 6-7, 300-pound Isaiah Prince has yet to play in a game this year, but he was the starting right tackle last year down the stretch and in the playoffs.
Whoever it is has to offset the strength of the massive 6-6, 266-pound Rousseau, the first-round rookie who has seven sacks and has shown a lot of power. And his size has been a big advantage, according to Bills radio analyst Eric Wood. With Von Miller out for the year, he won't be able to reprise his role against the Bengals of Super Bowl hero.
"He was expected to be a project, but playing around Von Miller really helped him," Wood says. "He had early production when all the offensive lines were sliding toward Von and Rousseau was able to really thrive across from him. He's learned a lot from Von. He's 6-7, an enormous wingspan. He reminds me of a Michael Johnson-type player, a player that Bengals fans know well. A lot of length, very athletic and so much length that he can also keep tackles' hands off him and he becomes a power guy more than he truly is based up on his length."
BENGALS S MICHAEL THOMAS VS. BILLS LB TYLER MATAKEVICH
With changes at long snapper and punter for the first time in 14 seasons, the Bengals special teams are uncharacteristically ranked low in the Football Outsiders rankings at No. 18 after top ten finishes in eight of the last 10 years. But Bengals special teams captain Michael Thomas thinks they're on the rise at the right time with the No. 7 Bills and No. 4 Ravens staring at them in the last two weeks.
The Patriots are ranked below the Patriots, but the New England return teams are top seven and the Bengals bottled them up last week in the 22-18 victory. The Bills' dangerous Nyheim Hines, ninth in punt returns just behind Cincinnati's Trent Taylor, waits on both punts and kicks Monday and Thomas thinks they've got some momentum off what they did against Bill Belichick's always respected special teams.
"That has to be the standard," says Thomas, renewing a rivalry with Matakevich, a fellow core teamer in his seventh season. "No. 44 is a guy I've always respected. He reads well, he always finds a way to get to the ball. He's tough to block on their returns. They do a lot of great things and it pays off because they've got a lot of guys that have speed out there. He does a good job reading off their speed. They're very fast, but I think we're up to the task.
"Hines is a good returner. Explosive. They've always been known for sideline returns and they've been hitting some good ones this year. We're starting to hit our stride."
Thomas looks at the competitiveness in his room with the goal to lead the kicking team in tackles and it's a race. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan, Jr., (11) has caught linebacker Markus Bailey (10) and Thomas is right there with 10, too, as linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither lurks with nine. Running back Trayveon Williams has played in only seven games, but he's got seven tackles and is tied with linebackers Clay Johnston and Joe Bachie.
"You look up and we've got a bunch of guys with double digits in tackles," Thomas says. "We weren't covering as many kicks earlier in the year, but we've had some good games lately and there's juice and we're fired up."
BENGALS C TED KARRAS, RG ALEX CAPPA AND LG CORDELL VOLSON VS. BILLS DT ED OLIVER
According to Pro Football Focus, the Bengals' interior allowed Burrow to get hit only once in December. On the first day of 2023 are you looking for why 2022 was better than 2021? Start right there with those three guys.
You don't hear much about Oliver, the ninth pick in the 2019 draft, but a la the Bengals' B.J. Hill he's one of the best interior rushers in the league. At 6-1, 287 pounds, he's in that Aaron Donald mold and is highly regarded as a blurry quick rusher hard to leverage and is the same type of disruptor.
And you'll know him when you see him. He's got the same No. 91 as the Bengals' best pass rusher, Trey Hendrickson.
Oliver has just 2.5 sacks, but he's also hit the quarterback 14 times and has a safety to go with nine tackles for loss.
"Just might be their best pass rusher right now. He's not Aaron Donald, but he's a little smaller and a little quicker," Eric Wood says. "And he often plays in the opponents' backfield."