Matchups to watch in Sunday's AFC Divisional in Buffalo:
BENGALS QB JOE BURROW VS BILLS QB JOSH ALLEN IN RED ZONE
This is a red zone game. Both teams are going to score. The Bills are fifth in scoring since the end of December, the Bengals 11th and they have used almost the exact same formula down here to craft their winning streaks. The Bengals are fifth scoring touchdowns in the red zone and the Bills are the second-best defenders inside the 20. The Bengals are No. 9 preventing touchdowns and the Bills are ninth scoring in there. It starts and ends with the quarterbacks. Both Burrow and Allen have 24 red-zone touchdown passes, but Allen has an NFL-high five interceptions while Burrow has just one.
Cincy hopes it goes like it did on Jan. 2 for 60 minutes. The Bengals scored in the red zone with the Bills draped on wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins while slot receiver Tyler Boyd wriggled free for a touchdown. At the other end, the Bengals secondary forced a field goal before the game was cancelled.
"The way they play defense they try to keep everything in front and limit the big plays," Burrow said last week, "and when you get down into the red zone that style of defense is really effective because you shorten the field and they can play a lot more aggressive in their zones."
BENGALS QB JOE BURROW VS. BILLS DC LESLIE FRAZIER
The Bills under head coach Sean McDermott aren't known as big blitzers and according to Pro Football Reference, they do it less than 20 percent of the time (19.4). But old friend Frazier, former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' first defensive coordinator in 2003 and 2004, has Buddy Ryan roots and the Bengals are starting, basically, three new offensive linemen and up until last week, hadn't allowed more than two sacks in the winning streak.
The big numbers that deter blitzers are how quickly Burrow gets it out of his hand and how well he handless pressure. He leads the league with 19 quick passing touchdowns and is top five in passer rating and completion percentage against pressure. It's why the makeup of the offensive line doesn't have them as worried as they might be since the elements of Burrow's style are still intact.
"You try to find where our biggest mismatch might be and you try to help that as much as possible," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan of the looming line play. "Sometimes it's an interior player, sometimes it's an edge. We've always lended presence with tight ends and backs. We can turn our protection different ways to help the interior players. Those are all things that we've done all season long, so it doesn't really change our operation because those guys are really good on the other side and we try to minimize those impact players as best we can.
"It's part of our standard game-planning operation, really. And part of that falls on the quarterback and receivers to get open and win so we can get the ball out when it requires it."
And that's the key. The quarterback able to read and get it out. Plus, the Bengals are used to playing high-pressure playoff games with a young line. Both new tackles, Jackson Carman and Hakeem Adeniji, played in last year's run.
"I think we're a better team. I think our players, all our younger players ... are all better players this year than last year," Callahan said. "Joe is a better player this year than he was last year. And that goes for Hakeem and Jackson and those guys are better players than they were a year ago, too. I feel good about where those guys (offensive line) are at. We are a better team. And we know how to handle all those elements that get thrown at us when you have guys in in and out of the lineup and I feel good about where we're at and how we handle those things."
Still, the question looms. Twenty days ago it looked like the Bengals were bound and determined to throw it 50 times, daring Buffalo's top down defense to come down. But that was two offensive linemen ago.
DE SAM HUBBARD AND MLB LOGAN WILSON VS. BILLS QB JOSH ALLEN
No quarterback runs the ball like Allen. But the Bengals have built their defense on speed bent on containing the dual threat artists. Just look at the last time they went on the road in an AFC playoff game. Hubbard, one of their many capable "spies," (defenders who can mirror the quarterback), hounded Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes into back-to-back sacks to force overtime, iconic plays a year before last week's Fumble In The Jungle.
But Hubbard is just one of those guys that can shadow Allen. One of them is Wilson, the team's leading tackler who played with Allen at Wyoming. Wilson, who watched Allen throw the ball 70 yards standing still, says defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has been telling them to tackle Allen like a tight end.
The Dolphins got ripped for blitzing Allen so much last week in the Wild Card Game, but they did get results. According to Next Gen Stats, Allen faced five or more rushers on 52.2 percent of drop-backs, the highest blitz rate he faced this season, and he only went nine of 18 for 166 yards for a touchdown and an interception for a 77.5 passer rating.
Anarumo blitzes almost as less as Frazier. But he, too, has had results. The Bengals allowed a 53.6 completion percentage when blitzing this season and they were the league's best defense when causing pressure in the regular season: First in passer rating allowed (36.2), completion percentage allowed (39.9), and the only team with no touchdowns allowed to go with seven interceptions.
"You have to be ready for everything," slot cornerback Mike Hilton says of Allen. "He's one of these guys that can run quarterback power when you think he's going somewhere else. And he's good against blitzes because he can break tackles. The big thing is not to let him get outside the pocket. He runs more than Mahomes, but he's like Mahomes because he makes his biggest plays outside the pocket."
BENGALS S DAX HILL VS BILLS WR GABE DAVIS, BILL TE DAWSON KNOX
Davis turns into Jerry Rice in the playoffs. Or at least Larry Fitzgerald. He caught six balls for 113 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins last week and he's got six touchdowns in his last three playoff games. Only Fitzgerald has had more in any three-game span in the playoffs since 1970.
The Bengals are down a cornerback. Tre Flowers (hamstring) is doubtful and Hill played nine snaps last week when he went down and won praises from Anarumo for his work in the red zone. Flowers usually covers the tight end and Knox is a worthy target with a touchdown in each of the last five games.
Hill hasn't played much, but has flashed when pressed into service. Since he played a career-high 66 snaps in Tampa Bay Dec. 18 in place of Hilton, he's played a total of 15 snaps. But isn't that how this winning streak has gone?
The nine-game skein began without No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and has watched reserves like defensive tackle Jay Tufele, running back Samaje Perine, wide receiver Trenton Irwin, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, edge Joseph Ossai, tackles Hakeem Adeniji and Jackson Carman and guard Max Scharping come off the bench and keep the wins rolling.