Professional. Workman-like. By the book. Those are just a few ways I’d describe the Bengals 24 - 18 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night. It wasn’t flashy or thrilling. It wasn’t a nail-biter. It was just the Bengals doing what they do in primetime: taking care of business.
Despite the relative lack of action, there was a ton of hype leading up to the contest. It marked the return of Bills safety Damar Hamlin to Paycor Stadium, the site where he died and was revived on the field just over ten months ago. It marked the much-anticipated rematch of last year’s AFC Divisional Round, where the Bengals strode into Orchard Park and tossed around a favored Bills team 27 - 10. It also marked the intersection of two teams on opposite trajectories: the rising Bengals, winners of three straight heading into the contest, and the floundering Bills, who hadn’t strung consecutive wins together since October 1. In the end, the balance of the Bengals was too much for the Bills to overcome.
That’s back-to-back complete performances from the Bengals, and we’re slowly seeing this team round into the Super-Bowl-caliber form we expected in the preseason. Joe Burrow looks as smooth and as confident as ever, as he directs a Bengals offense that’s looked explosive and efficient over the last two weeks. His movement in the pocket is incredible, and he’s making tough throws on the move look easy. We’re now two weeks removed from the Bye Week, and the difference between Burrow before and after is night and day. Apparently, that calf strain was a pretty big hindrance – go figure!
Against the Bills, Burrow was masterful. He was accurate and tested the Bills defense at all levels. He stood tall in the pocket even as defenders swirled around him, taking only one sack despite being hurried regularly, and he utilized every last one of his targets. And Joe’s targets stepped up – and in a big way.
Tee Higgins had his first stellar performance of the year, catching eight passes for 110 yards and being a consistent outlet as Burrow scrambled. Tyler Boyd came up with the catch of the day, securing a 32-yard reception down the middle of the field with 3:32 left in the 4th quarter – all but icing the game in favor of the Bengals. And even on an off-night, Ja’Marr Chase still made his presence felt, grabbing four balls for 41 yards while being the center of attention for Bills defenders all game.
The biggest story of the game on offense, though, was the performance of the Bengals tight ends…all of them. Irv Smith Jr. finally woke up from his season-long nap to haul in his first touchdown reception of the year and contributed with two other big catches. Blocking tight end Drew Sample had a 22-yard touchdown reception and looked light on his feet as he juked Bills safety Taylor Rapp to get into the endzone. For the typically lumbering Sample, it was as shocking as it was athletic.
Practice squad call-up Tanner Hudson, though, was the breakout star of the game, catching four passes and getting Sunday Night Football’s Chris Collinsworth to briefly compare him to Chiefs superstar Travis Kelce. Obviously, comparing anyone to Kelce is madness, but if Hudson can even be a C+ version of Kelce the Bengals offense will become unbearable for defenses. But whether or not Hudson ever becomes a go-to target for Burrow is irrelevant: either way, he’s proving to be another competent weapon – you can add him to that ever-growing list with Trenton Irwin and Andrei Iosivas.
As for the Bengals defense, Lou Anarumo continues to shine as one of the brightest defensive minds in the entire sport. He isn’t a defensive coordinator as much as he’s an elite offense-destroyer. He’s like an advanced AI programmed to make life living hell for opposing QBs. Whether it’s Pat Mahomes, Josh Allen, Tua Tagovailoa, whoever – Anarumo knows exactly what they do best, and exactly how to take that away. He did it last night to Allen, taking away the deep throws and forcing Allen to be Superman to win. Allen tried his darndest, but it still wasn’t enough, especially with Burrow making mincemeat of the Bills defense.
Linebacker Germaine Pratt continues to be a turnover machine, forcing his second fumble of the season while adding eleven tackles on the day. His running mate Logan Wilson added eight tackles of his own as the two stake their claim as the best linebacker tandem in the league. They both affect the game in so many ways, and their versatility means they almost never leave the field. Having two ‘backers with such skill against the run and the pass is a true luxury, and Anarumo gets the most out of his two studs in the middle.
I could go on and on about all the contributors to the Bengals critical win (their first over an AFC opponent all year), but I’d just bore you to death. That’s the nature of a professional, workman-like win: everybody, down to the punter (who pinned the Bills inside their own 20-yard line three times, by the way) did their job. The offense moved the ball with consistency, the defense made life hard for Allen and the Bills, and the special teams filled in the gaps. It was the second-straight week the Bengals played the ultimate brand of complimentary football, and it was another reminder that – when they play their absolute best game – there’s nobody that can withstand the balance of the Bengals.
So now, the team moves to 5 - 3. Incredibly, they’re still last in the division, but it’s no matter. The Bengals are playing their best ball, and there’s still room to improve. Once again, the Bengals make us look silly for ever doubting them (and note to self not to do it again next year). Offensively, defensively, and on special teams, the Bengals are rolling. There’s still a lot of time between now and January, but it seems the Bengals are postseason-ready today. And with the balance they’re showing, it’s going to be a tall task for any team to slow them down.