The Cincinnati Bengals travel to Ralph Wilson Stadium to take on the Buffalo Bills Sunday afternoon. Cincinnati has not won at Buffalo since November 1985 when Boomer Esiason was starting under center for the Bengals.
Coming off the heels of a major win over New England, Cincinnati looks to earn its fourth victory and remain tied for first place in the AFC North.
On the other side, Buffalo is reeling after a devastating defeat to Cleveland that involved starting quarterback EJ Manuel going down to injury. Thaddeus Lewis will start for the second time in his career in as many years.
Get A.J. Green involved
Since starting the season with 162 yards against the Bears, A.J. Green hasn't topped 61 yards in the past four weeks. Part of the blame rests with Andy Dalton, who has yet to reach the same page with Green and overthrows or underthrows him regularly. To jump start a stagnant Bengals offense, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden needs to dial up plays that get Dalton and Green in sync before airing it out to the star receiver.
Geno Atkins is second in the NFL with 3.5 sacks among defensive tackles behind Dontari Poe, anchoring the league's eighth-ranked defense. Buffalo fields the league's third-best rushing attack and a higher scoring offense than Cincinnati. The Bengals defense needs to generate turnovers and force Thaddeus Lewis into making bad decisions in case Dalton can't spark Cincy's offense.
Cincinnati must protect the ball
The Bengals are tied for second in the league with 11 turnovers. Dalton has thrown five interceptions while the offense has coughed up another six fumbles. Cincinnati needs to avoid turning over the ball and run down the clock with time-killing drives. Any missed opportunity could give Lewis a chance to give his best impersonation of Brian Hoyer, who led Cleveland to an upset victory two weeks ago.
Defense must create opportunities
Buffalo has one of the most opportunistic defenses, forcing 11 takeaways and generating 18 sacks. Dalton and the Cincinnati offense have been underwhelming this year so far and should give Buffalo's defense plenty of chances to give the ball back to Lewis.
Lewis needs to play smart
Last week, Cincinnati's defense contained Tom Brady, sacking him four times, hitting him another eight and putting Brady under near-constant pressure. This was without key players Leon Hall and Michael Johnson, who will likely return this week.
Lewis needs to protect the ball and not force it into small windows as inexperienced quarterbacks are apt to do. Additionally, Lewis must maintain constant pocket awareness and never flinch in the face of Cincinnati's fearsome pass rush.
Big performances from C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson
Buffalo's offensive strength is its run game. In order to win, Spiller and Jackson need to provide immense support to Lewis, which is easier said than done against a top-11 run defense. To make matters worse, Spiller is still hindered by injury and Jackson can't shoulder the same kind of load as before.
If one or both running backs break the century mark, Buffalo has a chance to win.
Buffalo Bills: Thaddeus Lewis
Lewis makes his second career start against one of the better defenses in the NFL.
Lewis showed some potential during his start last year against the Steelers, completing 22-of-32 for a score and an interception. However, Cincinnati's defense is an entire tier better than Pittsburgh's and will pose a stiff challenge.
A solid game from Lewis will cement his status as Manuel's backup, which would likely send rookie Jeff Tuel to the practice squad. If Lewis performs horribly, Tuel might receive the starting nod for Week 7.
Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton
Since being selected in the second round three years ago, Dalton has yet to put questions about his ability as a franchise quarterback to rest. Even teammates, like Adam Jones, aren't fully convinced Dalton can lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl, per NBCSN's Erik Kuselias (h/t Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk).
If Dalton can't produce a big game against the 22nd-ranked defense, even more questions will pop up, and it will be harder to suppress them.
Buffalo is plagued by injuries that will likely haunt them throughout Sunday's game.
The worst is Manuel, who will be out for the next several weeks with a sprained knee.
Buffalo's primary offensive weapons, Spiller and Stevie Johnson, are also fighting injuries and will likely be limited Sunday. Spiller's carries will go to Jackson, but a limited Johnson would devastate a thin receiving corps.
On defense, Jairus Byrd should make his first regular-season appearance, although Stephon Gilmore is listed as questionable due to his hand injury.
Cincinnati will enter Sunday's game at relatively full health.
Starting defensive end Michael Johnson is listed as questionable, but a report from the Bengals official website after Friday's practice seems optimistic. He will likely play, but he'll probably be on the field for less than 50 percent of Buffalo's offensive snaps.
All signs point to cornerback Leon Hall returning from a hamstring injury suffered against Green Bay. Hall is also listed as questionable and will probably be rotated in and out of the lineup the entire game.
Several questions surround both teams as they enter Sunday. The game's result should provide some answer to the following questions:
- Can Dalton silence his critics?
- If Cincinnati can't stop another backup quarterback, what does this mean for the defense? The season?
- Can Lewis win in relief of Manuel?
- If Lewis performs badly in the first half, will Buffalo insert Tuel for the second?
Cincinnati should advance to 4-2 on the year. However, the victory will be anything but resounding as Dalton fails to silence his critics. Instead, Cincinnati will win on the strength of its defense, Lewis' inexperience and solid performances from running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.
Lewis will protect the ball, but he won't be able to consistently mount drives against a staunch Bengals defense.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Buffalo 10