The Bengals head to Western New York Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) to play the New York State champion Bills in a game they need to clear their state of mind.
Are they last week's team that showed up for their home opener shockingly devoid of energy and couldn't run the ball or stop the run? Or are they the team from two weeks ago that took a Super Bowl contender to the brink in one of the NFL graveyards with a fresh and creative frenzy on each side of the ball?
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable mulls the question en route to the hometown of Millard Fillmore in an effort to prove it is not a party of football know nothings. So we tapped a deep well of knowledge on both sides of the field led by the seasoned Buffalo contingent of Jerry Sullivan and Mark Gaughan and anchored by Cincinnati's tenured tandem of John Fay and Paul Dehner, Jr.
The estimable Sullivan is still the sporting conscience of the region after his nationally renowned column in The Buffalo News ran for 29 years. Now he's the host of his own radio show on 1270 The Fan while also writing a weekly column for The Niagara Gazette. The relentless Gaughan has worked for The News for 36 years, primarily blanketing the Bills up front from Fred Smerlas to Ed Oliver.
Fay joined The Cincinnati Enquirer in that first Bengals Super Bowl season of 1981 and it turns out that's the only game he hasn't covered in an unrivaled career of versatility approaching five different decades. He's best known for covering the Reds for 22 seasons, but he's also set the record straight chronicling high schools, the University of Cincinnati, as well as several gag-filled seasons backing up Bengals beat reporter Jack Brennan.
Dehner rose to prominence covering the Green-Dalton Bengals at The Enquirer with a new age blend of analytics and podcasts before The Athletic snagged him during the offseason in a high stakes game of free agency and anointed him senior writer. And we like senior writers.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors first before going by the alphabet:
People are wondering what's happened to the old Jerry Sullivan. I like this team. I covered 17 straight years of them not making the playoffs, so I was used to being right in assuming the worst for a dysfunctional franchise. I think this is the best Bills team in 20 years. They've got the most complete package I've seen in a Bills team since '99, Doug Flutie's last year as the starting quarterback.
They were second in the league in allowing yards per play last year, which to me is the most critical stat. They're right back there this year in two games. I think the defense will keep them in games. Over the years they've had defenses that kept them in games, but their offense was terrible. Since quarterback Drew Bledsoe's first year here in 2003, they have the fewest attempted passes and yards of any team. They have just not kept up with the trend. There are good signs now with Josh Allen at quarterback making pretty good progress and with weapons around him the offense is good enough to be a ten-win team.
They remind me a little bit of the Eagles of two years ago and I'm not putting them in the Super Bowl. That Eagles D-line rotated eight guys and the Bills are doing that and they're getting all of them to contribute. They have a second-year quarterback from a small school. They've got running back by committee. They've got decent but not great receivers. Probably Philly's were better, but it's that type of team. And head coach Sean McDermott came from Philly back in the Andy Reid days. He was in Carolina with Cam Newton. He's got a model. Big, mobile athletic quarterback and a great defense that gets after the passer and it's working for him.
THE EDGE: There's still skepticism about Buffalo in the national media. I wonder about them against the run, but you guys just can't run well. I think it's going to be hard for teams to score 20 against the Bills this year. Last year the offense put the defense in bad position, so the second-ranked defense was 18th in points allowed. Kind of the opposite of what the Pats do every year. The field position will be better this year and those two stats will be closer together. It's the first time they've been 2-0 going into a home opener. It's going to be hard calling signals. If the Bengals don't get the running game going, the Bills' front is going to give them a lot of trouble. BILLS, 27-17.
Home openers are an advantage. The fact A.J. Green is out is obviously another big help to the Bills and the Bills are really good at preventing big pass plays. I think the Cincinnati defense is going to have to play a really good game because I don't see Cincinnati tearing up the Bills defense. The Bills defense runs three deep, but the thing is they're very sound. They play zone. They keep everything in front of them. They make teams go 12, 13 plays without making a mistake and they have enough depth on the defensive line to force mistakes on one of those long drives.
The Bills running game was poor last year even though the numbers were deceiving. They finished ninth in the league, but that was on the back of Josh Allen's scrambling. The running backs finished with a franchise-low 77 yards per game. They've overhauled the running game. They brought in seven new offensive linemen and they have a new backfield with Frank Gore and Devin Singletary. Singletary is out, but they also have T.J. Yeldon. The running game, which didn't give Josh Allen much help last year, is much better and they can attack between the tackles and outside the tackles. The Bengals have a pretty good defensive line group, but they need to get Josh Allen in advantageous situations on third down. That's the key to the game. If the Bills get the running game going reasonably well, Cincinnati is in trouble.
THE EDGE: The Bengals secondary has enough questions that the Bill will be able to move the ball. BILLS, 27-17.
I think the Bengals will play much better this week. It's hard to play much worse than they played last week. I think they're a better team than what they showed and I don't think the Bills are as good as their 2-0 record would suggest. But the Bills have a pretty darn good defense and for a Bengals team that hasn't been able to run the ball, you can't be one dimensional and win a game. You can like they almost did two weeks, but …
I'm not a huge Josh Allen believer. He's obviously better, but I think his inaccuracy should be able to create a couple of turnovers. Whether the Bengals get those might be the difference in the game.
THE EDGE: I think they play better. I don't think they win. I don't know if this team has it all figured out yet. BILLS, 23-20.
It's hard to pick the Bengals. They're going on the road. The thing you have to say about Buffalo is they're 2-0, but they beat the Jets and Giants. Until the Bengals get this offensive line thing straightened out, it's makeshift. That's just a hard thing. Running back Joe Mixon took the blame for the running game, but it's hard to believe it's all his fault.
I think they could go in and pull off an upset. The passing game has been pretty good without A.J. Green. The defense has to play better and they played pretty well in Seattle. Last week they just couldn't tackle anybody with the 49ers getting 130 yards after hitting guys. Zac Taylor talked about that this week. You really can't go out and bang heads at practice. That's not allowed in the NFL. It's just by rule you can't tackle in practice. They've got a lot of things going against them. But I thought at the beginning of the year this was a game they could win.
THE EDGE: The Bengals offensive line is struggling. The defense was horrendous last week. They couldn't stop the run. Buffalo has a pretty good running game. For the Bengals to win they need Mixon to have a big game to take the pressure off Andy Dalton. And if you have a running game, the defense isn't on the field as much and if they can eliminate some of those big plays. But you just got beat, 41-17, and going on the road. Talking to Zac Taylor and the players, they still have confidence. But they're in desperate need of a win. BILLS, 24-17
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bills have everybody back but defensive tackle Kyle Williams on the NFL's second-best defense. And the guy they replaced him with, top ten pick Ed Oliver, looks to be one of the next stars in the league. So, the Bengals simply aren't going to go to Orchard Park and throw down a lot of points. You think Seattle was loud? Imagine a starved Bills contingent greeting their men for the first 2-0 home opener. A tough joint to play in trying to find a running game at the same time.
The Bengals need to be as creative as they were in Seattle two weeks ago, when they clearly had the Seahawks back on their heels in a 17-point first half. But in the six quarters since, the Bengals have come up with just two touchdowns and three field goals. Still, the Giants poked holes in the Buffalo defense with running back Saquon Barkley and while the Bengals' Joe Mixon is a different running back entirely, he's an elite talent that can take the game over with some room. The man is, after all, the defending AFC rushing champion.
The Bengals have to scheme a way. They've lived on the long pass with John Ross' touchdown catches covering 33, 55 and 66 yards accounting for all but one of their touchdowns. The tough thing is they face a defense that is the best in the NFL at stopping the long pass. Or the intermediate ball, for that matter. McDermott's rock-ribbed disciplined units have allowed no passes of 40 yards this season and only two of at least 20. Last year was even more stunning, when they led the NFL allowing just two balls of 40 and 36 of least 20.
There's no mystery what's going to happen on the other side of the ball. Singletary is out, so the Bills are going to send old war horse Frank Gore to the edges that the 49ers shredded last week in the run game. Gore has just 2.9 yards per carry on 30 carries, but he's going to the Hall of Fame and he's crafty enough to pop a 124-yard game if note careful. Which, by the way, would give him 15,000 career yards. Yeldon doesn't have a carry yet this season, but in his five seasons he averages four yards per.
Plus, Allen has as many yards rushing as Mixon, so they've got to be careful with his danger scrambling. The Bengals would seem to be able to shut down the run because Allen doesn't have a vast array of receiving weapons at his disposal. The only guy with more than nine catches is former Ravens speed threat John Brown with 14 for nearly 14 per catch. But they do have to keep an eye on the 5-8, 174-pound Cole Beasley, an eight-year vet matched up in the slot against back-up corner Tony McRae playing in place of the injured B.W. Webb.
This thing may come down to the play of the linebackers as the Bengals look to make a stand. For the third straight week, the Bengals running game plays a defense spurred by linebackers. In the opener, it was perennial Pro Bowler Bobby Wagner and last week it was Kwon Alexander, arguably the best player on the field last Sunday. This week it's 2018 first-rounder Tremaine Edwards, guy in the middle whose level of play they hope can eventually match his massive, 6-5, 250-pound physical tools.
Bengals backers Nick Vigil and Preston Brown played well enough to win in Seattle and need another performance like it in Buffalo to negate Allen's athleticism as well as stopping the run to set up their pass rush.
Dalton is 4-1 against the Bills and has never lost in one of his adopted hometowns. If he gets a little help on the ground on both sides of the ball, he can keep it that way.