Surprising Bills aim to keep rolling in Cincinnati
Thanks to the league's highest-scoring offense, the Buffalo Bills ended an epic losing streak to one of the NFL's top contenders last week. The team now finds itself on the other side of the table.
The early-season AFC East leaders try for an 11th straight victory over the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
After a 4-12 campaign a season ago, the Bills have already neared that victory total by winning their first three games of the season for the first time since a 4-0 start in 2008. They have done so by averaging an NFL-high 37.7 points per game.
Buffalo needed every one of its points in last weekend's 34-31 victory over New England, which snapped a 15-game losing streak to the Patriots. The Bills battled back from 21 points down and became the first team in NFL history to post back-to-back victories in games in which they trailed by 18 or more points.
The Bills had overcome a 21-3 halftime deficit in a thrilling 38-35 win over Oakland the previous week.
"Of course we're happy to get that monkey off our back, but at the same time, this was a team that we had to beat to get to 3-0," Bills running back Fred Jackson said of last Sunday's triumph.
Buffalo picked off New England quarterback Tom Brady four times, turning one pick into a game-tying one-yard touchdown run by Jackson. The fourth interception was returned 27 yards to the end zone by Drayton Florence with 10:22 to play to give the Bills their first lead of the game.
After the Patriots tied the game, Buffalo's Rian Lindell kicked a 28-yard field goal as time expired to clinch the win.
After besting one of the top teams in the league, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't worried about his club falling into a potential trap game.
"We started out 0-8 last year, we only won four games and we know how hard wins are to come by," Fitzpatrick said. "I think with that I don't think you'll ever see us take a game for granted."
Buffalo would be wise not to look past the Bengals, who come in 1-2 but with the third-ranked defense in the league.
"The pressure they create on the quarterback, the talent they have on the back end...this is probably our biggest challenge yet in terms of our offense going against a defense," said Fitzpatrick. "We're looking forward to it."
Cincinnati's defense, though, faltered down the stretch in a 13-8 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday.
With the game tied at 3-3, the Bengals were held to a field goal with 9:04 left in the fourth quarter despite getting inside the 49ers' 10-yard line. San Francisco then countered with a 72-yard drive that ended with a seven-yard touchdown run by the Niners' Kendall Hunter with just under four minutes to go.
Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton then threw the first two interceptions of his career following the go-ahead score.
"We're not converting in the red zone," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "We had opportunities in the red zone [last week] and we're not coming away with touchdowns. Right now that's obviously our biggest deficiency."
Wide receiver Jerome Simpson was active for the Bengals last week despite reports that police confiscated a package containing 2 1/2 pounds of marijuana that was being shipped from California to his Kentucky home.
Cedric Benson's status for this game also had been slightly in the air, as the Cincinnati running back has a three-game suspension pending from an arrest in July in which he was charged with misdemeanor assault. Benson has appealed the ban and has yet to have a ruling handed down by the league, meaning he'll be eligible to play on Sunday.
Despite its current series winning streak, Buffalo only leads the all-time regular-season series with Cincinnati by a 15-10 margin and is coming off last November's 49-31 triumph. Four of the Bills' victories during that streak have taken place in Cincinnati, and the Bengals haven't beaten Buffalo in a non- playoff setting since a 35-21 verdict at Riverfront Stadium in 1988.
These clubs have also met twice in the postseason, with the Bengals winning on both occasions. Cincinnati earned a 28-21 home decision in a 1981 AFC Divisional Playoff and dealt the Bills a 21-10 loss at Riverfront Stadium in the 1988 AFC Championship.
Lewis is 0-5 against the Bills in his career, while Buffalo's Chan Gailey won his only previous head-to-head meeting with both Lewis and Cincinnati with last season's result.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Buffalo was near the bottom of the league last year in scoring, but a red-hot start by Fitzpatrick (841 passing yards, 9 TD, 3 INT) has reversed the course. The 28-year-old Harvard graduate is tied for second in the NFL in touchdown passes and joined Joe Ferguson and Jim Kelly as the only quarterbacks in Bills history to start a season with three straight multi-touchdown games. Fitzpatrick passed for 369 yards a week ago and was able to overcome a pair of interceptions. The Bengals will have to account for both of the Bills' wide receivers after Stevie Johnson (20 receptions, 3 TD) and Donald Jones were each targeted 10 times versus the Pats. Johnson ended with eight receptions for 94 yards with a touchdown, while Jones (11 receptions, 1 TD) had 101 yards on five catches. Wideout David Nelson (20 receptions, 1 TD) added six catches for 84 yards and tight end Scott Chandler (9 receptions) caught his fourth touchdown pass of the season in the win. No Buffalo tight end has caught five scoring throws in a season since Mark Campbell in 2004. In addition to rushing for 74 yards on 12 carries, Jackson (303 rushing yards, 8 receptions, 3 total TD) caught five passes for 87 yards and looms as a dual threat.
The pressure will be on the Bengals to keep the Bills' offense in check -- and that is exactly what they put on the 49ers a week ago. In holding San Francisco to 226 yards of offense -- including 176 through the air -- Cincinnati logged five sacks in a game for the first time since it had six on Sept. 20, 2009. Defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene (12 tackles, 2 sacks) had two of the sacks, while tackle Geno Atkins (10 tackles, 2 sacks and end Frostee Rucker (7 tackles, 1 sack) had one each. Cincinnati's line could also get a big boost if defensive end Robert Geathers can return after missing the past two games with a shoulder injury. He was limited in practice this week, as was Fanene due to a knee issue. Cincinnati is allowing just 276.3 yards per game and will lean heavily on its secondary on Sunday. Former Bill Nate Clements (14 tackles) and fellow corner Leon Hall (6 tackles) will try to buy the rush time to make plays and safety Reggie Nelson (23 tackles, 1 sack) will look to build on his team- leading tackle total after making nine stops last week. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (21 tackles) added eight tackles.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
With his suspension looming, Benson (244 rushing yards, 1 TD) was held to 64 yards on 17 carries by San Francisco and nearly came up with a touchdown. He should get the bulk of the work as long as he is active on Sunday, with Bernard Scott ready to step in when needed for the league's 24th-ranked rushing attack. The rookie tandem of Dalton (570 passing yards, 3 TD) and wide receiver A.J. Green (15 receptions, 2 TD) was held in check as well last week, with Green failing to find the end zone for the first time in three games after making four catches for 29 yards. Simpson (9 receptions) was held to only one catch for six yards, while Andre Caldwell (9 receptions, 1 TD) led the team with six catches and 53 yards. Dalton ended with 157 yards on 17-of-32 passing and was sacked once without a touchdown. The rookie's two picks dropped the Bengals' turnover differential to plus-1 for the season, tied for 13th in the league. Cincinnati has scored on all eight of its red-zone chances this year, but has been held to a field goal five times.
While the Bills are the league's top scoring team, they rank just 21st in scoring defense, yielding 24.3 points per game. Buffalo is also allowing 387.3 yards per game (26th overall), and Cincinnati could solve its red-zone woes against a defense that has allowed eight touchdowns in 11 situations inside the 20. The Bills did rocket to the top of the NFL leaders in interceptions with six after recording four versus the Patriots. In addition to Florence (8 tackles, 2 INT), safeties George Wilson (24 tackles) and Bryan Scott (22 tackles, 1 sack) came up with picks, as did cornerback Leodis McKelvin (16 tackles). Buffalo did lose rookie nickel back Aaron Williams (11 tackles) to a chest injury that will sideline him for a month and remains without cornerback Terrence McGee, who suffered a hamstring injury in Week 1. That led to Buffalo promoting Terrence Wheatley to the roster from the practice squad this week. Free safety Jairus Byrd (27 tackles) came away with a game-high 12 tackles against the Patriots and linebacker Nick Barnett (29 tackles) added 11. Wilson and Scott finished with 10 stops each. Pressure has been an issue throughout this year for the Bills, with the team logging just two sacks through three games.
KEYS TO THE GAME
While the Bengals' efficiency in the red zone cost the club last week, the Bills have scored 11 touchdowns in 14 trips inside the 20. That 78.6 percent mark ranks third in the NFL.
Dalton experienced some quick success over his first two weeks, but now must show he can bounce back from a poor effort. He faces a tough secondary, and the Bills should be full of confidence after giving Brady some fits last week. Taking away Green again will also make for a long day for Dalton.
A quick lead could lead to a fourth straight victory for the Bills. Their defense has allowed just 24 points in the second half this year, tied for seventh-best in the league.
There is no doubt that the Bills' 3-0 start has been one of the NFL's biggest surprises so far this season, and a victory over the Patriots has to put the momentum squarely in Buffalo's corner. Keeping other teams off the scoreboard has been an issue for the Bills' defense, though, and that is something that the Bengals will try to capitalize on Sunday. Many are waiting for the shoe to drop on the Bills' quick start, but it won't come this weekend against a young Cincinnati offense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bills 24, Bengals 17