NFL Divisional Round Sunday Preview: Emotional Bengals-Bills reunion comes with AFC Championship berth on the line

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) resets a play before running a QB sneak for a first down in the first quarter of the NFL Week 17 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills at Paycor Stadium in Downtown Cincinnati on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. The game was suspended with suspended in the first quarter after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin (3) was taken away in an ambulance following a play. Buffalo Bills At Cincinnati Bengals Week 17

NFL Divisional Round Sunday Preview: Emotional Bengals-Bills reunion comes with AFC Championship berth on the line

Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) at Buffalo Bills (13-3)

Time/TV: 2 p.m. CT/CBS

The Cincinnati Bengals will travel to western New York for Sunday afternoon’s AFC Divisional showdown with the Buffalo Bills. Each team narrowly survived a scare at home against a division rival last Sunday to earn the right to play in the Divisional round, which is scheduled to be a rematch of Week 17’s canceled Monday Night Football game in Cincinnati.

That night, Cincinnati had taken an early 7-3 lead before Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field, suffering cardiac arrest. Medical personnel administered CPR to Hamlin on the field, who was quickly rushed to UC Hospital in Cincinnati as the game was called off entirely. While not fully recovered, Damar Hamlin is making steady progress and has been able to spend time at the team’s facility in a limited capacity. Tee Higgins, the Bengals wide receiver who collided with Hamlin on that play in the first quarter of Week 17’s game, has been outwardly supportive toward Hamlin’s family and has spoken about how he hopes to greet Hamlin this week ahead of Cincinnati’s playoff game at Buffalo.

While Week 17’s game had plenty of potential seeding implications attached to it, Sunday afternoon’s Divisional round matchup will end one team’s season. Cincinnati arrives in Buffalo after surviving a scare against Baltimore last Sunday night. The Bengals won 24-17 but struggled offensively all night in a game that felt like it could have ended very differently. The game’s biggest play was a defensive touchdown for the Bengals becoming known this week on Twitter as “the fumble in the jungle,” a 98-yard fumble return touchdown by Cincinnati native Sam Hubbard for the game’s decisive score. On offense, Cincinnati only mustered 234 yards while quarterback Joe Burrow was sacked four times.

The Bengals’ offensive struggles, especially when it comes to protecting Burrow, make sense in context. Cincinnati entered the wild-card round having lost two of its starting offensive linemen (tackle La’el Collins and guard Alex Cappa) since Week 16 and also lost offensive tackle Jonah Williams in last Sunday’s win. All three have been ruled out for Sunday’s game at Highmark Stadium, so Burrow will likely have to find a way to succeed once again while under duress for Cincinnati to reach the AFC Championship.

Buffalo’s wild-card win was hardly convincing either. The Bills toppled the Miami Dolphins 34-31, struggling to pull away all afternoon despite the Dolphins’ offense being led by third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson. Josh Allen threw two interceptions in the win and also fumbled the ball on what became a defensive touchdown for Miami. At the time, the fumble return touchdown put the Dolphins ahead 24-20 early in the third quarter of what very few expected to be a competitive game. Unlike Cincinnati, Buffalo did manage to dominate its wild-card matchup statistically. The Bills outgained Miami by almost 200 yards and managed 25 first downs to the Dolphins’ 16.

Both offenses are fully loaded with some of the league’s best-scoring threats and feature two of the most well-regarded young quarterbacks in the league. While each team is more than capable of producing gaudy offensive numbers, it seems likely that Sunday’s game will come down to taking care of the football and which defense can more commonly get off the field on third down. Buffalo’s front seven is undoubtedly salivating at the thought of taking on the Bengals’ beat-up offensive line, while the Bengals’ secondary is surely eager to fight for takeaways against a Buffalo offense that has been handing out plenty of turnovers.

Sunday afternoon will be the latest in a series of emotionally-charged scenes at Highmark Stadium in Buffalo since Damar Hamlin’s Week 17 collapse. Both the Bills and Bengals felt emotions beyond their football aspirations that night, and players from each side will always share the bond that night created. Sunday’s game will be a celebration of collective care for one another and a golden opportunity for two franchises to come one step closer to a feat they’ve never accomplished – winning a Super Bowl.

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