Last regular season, the Bengals won three of their last four games to make the playoffs and make their way to the Super Bowl. This year they started the engines much earlier.
Riding a seven-game winning streak, Joe Burrow and his crew are looking to prove that their 2021 AFC title was no fluke. And he will never have a better opportunity to send a message loud and clear to the current AFC leaders.
The Bills (12-4) have a chance to play the entire postseason in frigid Buffalo, a prized advantage given the hostile conditions there for any opponent, especially in January, when temperatures rarely read positive. But Cincinnati has been in this position before.
Cincinnati coach Zack Taylor warned, “This team hasn’t turned its back on anyone yet.”
The year before, the Bengals (11-3) hosted the Chiefs – then the top seed in the AFC – in a matchup in the final week of the regular schedule. The result, a 27–24 victory for Cincinnati, gave Kansas City first place in the conference and the rest history.
Buffalo is aware.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott said, “That’s why you work so hard throughout the season, to get to the final stages and play these types of games.” “We have a lot of respect for the Bengals. They’re the defending AFC champions…we know they’re a good competitor.”
And they really are.
Their sixth-best offense in the league averaged 26.7 points per game during their seven-game winning streak, fourth-best on third down and sixth-best on final 20-yard passes. With Burrows behind center and two receivers in the likes of Ja’Marr Chase (960 yards, 8 TD) and Tye Higgins (1,022 yards, 7 TD), he has enough to keep any defense in check.
Bills, fortunately, aren’t the only defense. They moved into Monday games second best in points scored in the entire NFL; He has allowed more than 25 points just once during his six-game winning streak and has nine games with at least two takeaways this season.
Yes, the first duel between Burrows and Allen promises to be a memorable one. More importantly, it could be the hors d’oeuvre for a playoff entry.
Panthers (6-9) at Tampa Bay (7-8)
In the National Conference South, the playoffs begin on Sunday, in a duel in which Tom Brady once again has history on his fingertips.
The Buccaneers, who pulled off a dramatic overtime win last week to avoid giving Tom Brady the first losing season of his illustrious career, are now one win away from clinching the NFC South title.
First they must overcome a Panthers who have won three of their last four games to be fully involved in the playoff conversation.
Carolina has been a different team since inserting Sam Darnold as their starting quarterback in Week 12. Since then, the Panthers lead the NFL in passes per attempt (8.63) and have committed only one turnover – also the league leader in that box during that span.
The Bucs have won four of the last five meetings in the series and need just one more to eliminate Carolina. The key lies in the hands of Brady, who on Sunday seeks to become the first quarterback in history with five consecutive games of at least 30 completions and 10 such games in a single season.
Dolphins (8-7) at New England (7-8)
Throughout the regular schedule, the Dolphins have been characterized by their inconsistency when their explosiveness is at their peak. On Sunday in Foxboro, he must drop both tags if he is to secure a postseason spot.
Once again without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, absent for his third concussion so far on the calendar, Miami faces the prospect of signing away its spot in the playoffs. But their hopes will rest on veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who will lead them through the season for the second time since 2009 and end a four-game losing streak that has put their ranking in jeopardy.
The Patriots, who are similarly in control of their post-season fortunes, are clinging to life after losing four of their last five games, most recently two heartbreaks to the Raiders and Bengals.
The fifth-best defense in the league will have to handle a Bridgewater that hasn’t won a game as a starter since Week 12 of last season, when he played with Denver, and never in an eight-year career with the Bills. Belichick hasn’t faced the PAT.
The final week of the regular calendar began on Thursday with a trip to Tennessee (7-8) for the Cowboys (11-4), who are coming off a five-game losing streak that cost them the top of the South division. Conference American.
The action continues on Sunday with the following games: Cardinals (4-11) at Atlanta (5-10); Bears (3-12) at Detroit (7-8); Jaguars (7-8) at Houston (2-12-1); the Broncos (4-11) at Kansas City (12-3); Colts (4-10-1) NY Giants (8-6-1); Saints (6–9) at Philadelphia; Browns (6-9) at Washington (7-7-1); the 49ers (11-4) in Las Vegas; Jets (7-8) at Seattle (7-8); the Vikings (12-3) and Green Bay (7-8); the Rams (5-10) at the L.A. Chargers (9-6); and the Steelers (7-8) in Baltimore (10-5).
road to the playoffs
Buffalo is already a division champion and holds first place in the AFC with Kansas City’s combined win-loss.
Cincinnati already has a playoff berth and the win combined with the Baltimore loss clinches the AFC North title.
With a win over the Jets’ loss, Miami clinches the final wild card berth for the playoffs.
Kansas City already won its division title.
The Chargers already have a secure postseason berth as a wild card team.
Baltimore already has a playoff berth and still has a chance to be a divisional champion.
Philadelphia already has a playoff berth, but with a win clinches the division and first place in the NFC.
Minnesota already has its division title locked up.
San Francisco has already clinched its division title
Dallas already has a playoff berth, though it still has a chance to win its division.
The Giants clinched the post-season wild card with the win.
Tampa Bay wrapped up the South crown with the win.
Washington needed a win combined with a Seattle loss to sign their ticket to the post-season.
Associated Press writers Mitch Stacey and John Vavro contributed to this report.