For a moment, the Cincinnati Bengals and their fans saw their season flash before their eyes. There was 13:13 left in their Wildcard contest against their division rivals from Baltimore. The game was tied at 17, and the Ravens were putting together a troubling drive. They had reached the Cincy 37-yard line with a first-and-ten.
And then, with no warning, there was the Baltimore quarterback running free down the sideline. No, it wasn’t Lamar Jackson. It was his stand-in, Tyler Huntley, but Tyler more than a little resembled Lamar as he sped 35 yards toward the end zone. Perhaps Jackson would have scored. Huntley almost did. Safety Jessie Bates III made it to the sideline just in time to escort Tyler out of bounds on the two-yard line.
Any score here would be troubling, but a touchdown would be more so. For the second straight week, the Baltimore defense was in the process of dominating the Cincy offense in the second half. In the last week of the regular season, the high-powered Bengal offense was restricted to just 90 yards and 3 first downs in the second half, going three-and-out six times in seven second half possessions. Quarterback Joe Burrow managed just 81 passing yards on 7 completions (in 14 attempts). The situation in last Sunday’s Wildcard game was eerily similar. The Bengals’ second-half output would be 107 yards (just 87 from Burrow’s passing). They would go three-and-out twice in their last three possessions.
And now, Baltimore was two yards away from a significant upset.
Going into the weekend it was a foregone conclusion in most parts that Cincinnati and Buffalo would be colliding in this week’s Divisional Round. The Bills and Bengals are two of the AFC’s Big Three (Kansas City is the other). They had been the marquee Monday Night matchup in the Week 17 game that was brought to a screeching halt when Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the turf late in the first quarter. When it became apparent that both teams would face backup quarterbacks in their first round playoff games, Buffalo’s return trip to Cincinnati seemed all but guaranteed.
Apparently, someone forgot to tell the backup quarterbacks that they were only supposed to be footnotes for the inevitable.
The Bills Squeak By
Super Wildcard Sunday began In Orchard Park with the Bills facing the Miami Dolphins and their third-string quarterback, Skylar Thompson. Skylar played his college ball at Kansas State, and, like San Francisco’s Brock Purdy, Skylar was picked in the last round of the 2022 draft. He was taken 15 picks before Purdy, and was the second-to-last quarterback drafted. With the quarterback drama in Miami this year – multiple concussions sidelining starter Tua Tagovailoa, and with knee and finger injuries sidelining backup Teddy Bridgewater – Skylar did see the field a few times. He played in 7 games, starting 2. He threw 105 regular season passes.
And now he was on the field in the playoffs taking on the 13-3 division champs from Buffalo and their Pro-Bowl quarterback Josh Allen. Not surprisingly, not much was expected of the Dolphins, who entered the game as 13.5-point underdogs.
For the first 17 minutes, the game progressed as most though it would. After coming up short on fourth-down of their first possession, Buffalo went on to score on their next three possessions, taking a 17-0 lead. To that point (the 12:46 mark of he second quarter), Buffalo had racked up 188 total yards and 11 first downs. Miami had 19 yards and 1 first down.
But the Dolphin defense would then take things into their own hands. Buffalo’s next five possessions would result in one field goal, one punt, two interceptions and one lost fumble. Miami turned all of the turnovers into points, pushing them briefly into the lead, 24-20, at the 13:59 mark of the third. From there, the contest tilted back and forth, not decided until, with Miami facing a fourth-and-five with 2:29 left, defensive back Kaiir Elam pulled Thompson’s final pass of the game out of the grasp of tight end Mike Gesicki.
The game – a 34-31 Buffalo victory (gamebook) (summary) – was most notable for the trouble that the Bills had with the Miami defense (the score notwithstanding). Allen finished the game with 352 yards passing and 3 touchdowns. He also completed just 59% of his passes and tossed the 2 interceptions while taking 7 sacks. Miami spent the regular season as the second-highest blitzing team in football (only the New York Giants exceeded Miami’s 33.3% blitz rate). They didn’t tone the concept down in their playoff game, Allen and his passing game notwithstanding.
Miami came after Josh on 36.7% of his drop-backs (18 of 49), and the game-plan brought the complete array of expected results. The sacks, the interceptions, the long completions (since blitzing usually means man coverage). The two quarterbacks combined to throw 19 passes at targets more than 20 yards from scrimmage – an uncommonly high number. Skylar was 1 for 8. Allen, throwing 11 deep passes, completed 4 of them for 139 yards and a touchdown. He also had one of those throws intercepted.
The compelling thing about the high-blitz concept is that it leads to short possessions – for good or bad. Buffalo never had a drive that made it to the five-minute mark, while having 5 that lasted less than a minute. Their four touchdown drives lasted 3:00, 2:13, 2:11 and 2:07. In this system, whatever was going to happen was going to happen fast. This kind of defense doesn’t stand on the field for very long before getting the ball back to its offense. In the give-and-take of this game, the Miami defense scored or set up nearly as many points (18) as they gave up (20, when you subtract the 14 points the Bills scored after Dolphin turnovers). On this afternoon, they needed just a little more than the compromised offense was able to give.
Thompson competed gamely, but the passing attack struggled. Skylar completed just 18 of 45, and threw a couple of interceptions to go along with his touchdown pass. His 44.7 passer rating speaks to the struggles there. Miami was also absent its top running back, Raheem Mostert. He had gained 891 yards and averaged 4.9 per carry for a team that rarely ran the ball. Miami’s 390 running attempts were the second fewest in football.
Raheem (who missed the game with a broken thumb) is noted for his speed, but just as importantly he brings a measure of toughness to the Dolphin running attack (when they decide to use it). Mostert averaged 2.1 yards after contact this year (the league average was 1.66) and broke a tackle every 11.3 carries (the league average was 19.7). He finished in the top ten in the league in both metrics.
Without Mostert, in a game when the Dolphins desperately needed a little something from its running game, they got next to nothing at all. Forty-two yards on 20 carries (2.1) is distressing even for one of the lesser running teams in the league (especially with a third-string quarterback starting). Just as disappointing, without Raheem, all of the toughness went out of the Dolphin running game as well.
Against Buffalo, Miami managed a total of 4 rushing yards after contact. Three of those came on one reverse by wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Principal runner Jeff Wilson, stepping in for Mostert, managed 1 extra yard on 10 carries.
The Miami running game struggled for more reasons than just the loss of a running back, and their issues are surprising because new head coach Mike McDaniel first came to prominence as Kyle Shanahan’s running game coordinator in San Francisco. But this running game was a mess.
The glaring issue against Buffalo was the scuffling right side of the offensive line, where guard Robert Jones and tackle Robert Hunt had long afternoons. In particular, they had a devil of a time catching up with Buffalo linebacker Matt Milano. Matt finished the game with 10 total tackles. I counted at least five plays on which he wasn’t even blocked.
Also disappointing for McDaniel must have been the lack of impact from fullback Alec Ingold. Coming from the San Francisco tradition, you know he would love to find an impact fullback like the 49ers’ Kyle Juszczyk. But Ingold hasn’t made anyone forget Kyle. The play that stands out came with 8:46 left in the third, with the Dolphins still up 24-20. Miami faced a first-and-ten from its own 17. The design of the run would send Salvon Ahmed around the right end, with Ingold picking defensive end Gregory Rousseau off the corner. But Rousseau (much more noted as a pass rusher than a run stopper) met Ingold in the backfield and just stopped him dead, taking away the edge. Ahmed tried to reverse field, but the Buffalo pursuit arrived to drop him for a two-yard loss.
Ten second half running plays gained 19 yards. Wide receiver Jaylen Waddle gained 8 of them on an end-around. None of the other 9 rushes gained more than 4 yards, and 7 of the 9 were held to two yards or less.
Over the long offseason, the Dolphins will have to ponder their future at quarterback. But Mike will also want to fix his running game. Of all coaches, he should understand its importance.
Back to Cincy
However barely, the Bills survived their scare. Now, would the Bengals be able to join them? It looked bad as the Ravens moved to third-and-goal from the one-yard line. In the days since the game was played, this was the most-discussed play. With the quarterback sneak called, the Ravens positioned themselves to push Huntly over the goal. Tyler, for some reason, tried to dive over the top. But the distance was too far, and the dive too short. Linebacker Logan Wilson dislodged the ball, which rolled down the pile of bodies at the goal line right into the arms of Bengal defensive lineman Sam Hubbard.
It is rare to see a big lineman take the football the length of the field, but if this was Hubbard’s only chance at it, he absolutely made good, navigating the entire 98 yards that separated him from the game deciding touchdown (gamebook) (summary). As with the earlier Buffalo game, this one wasn’t decided until Baltimore’s last gasp, a fourth-and-twenty pass from the Bengal 27-yard line, fell incomplete in the end zone.
Losing a Little Glitter
So, Cincinnati and Buffalo will meet on Sunday after all, probably for the right to meet Kansas City for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl (although the Jacksonville Jaguars still have something to say about that). But in getting this far, both teams are looking very mortal and maybe more than just a little bit lucky. Both heavy favorites (Cincy was an 8.5-point favorite) advanced by the thinnest of margins.
Cincinnati, in particular, has seen its passing attack come crashing back to earth in their last two games. Sunday, elite receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd were held to 37 and 26 receiving yards respectively, with only 5 and 15 of those yards coming in the scuffling second half. In the second half of the Week 18 game, Higgins had no catches and only two targets, while Boyd caught 2 passes for 9 yards.
Between the Buffalo turnovers and the inability of the Bengal receivers to separate, there would seem to be ample issues for these teams to worry about. It’s important to remember that these teams were facing a divisional opponent for the third time this season. In addition to high levels of familiarity, the other thing about division opponents is they don’t fear each other. And, for that matter, they frequently don’t like each other. You will frequently see things in division games that you won’t see in any other circumstance.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t things the coaching staffs will want to address. But it is more likely than not that both teams will look a lot more like their normal selves in their remaining games.