Buffalo (+2.5) @ Cincinnati
Power rankings: Buffalo 4, Cincy 9
Before we get into the game breakdown, we need to talk about this spread. Buffalo is the better team according to Weighted DVOA, PFF, ESPN's FPI, Sumer Sports, and of course, our in-house power rankings (the latter, obviously, is the only one that actually matters). Our model (downloadable here) thinks the Bills should be 2.5 point favorites, and here we are betting them as dogs. It's very, very rare for the model to be this far off from the market. On average, the model predicts Vegas spreads within 2 points.
My best guess for the disparity was due to Josh Allen's re-aggravation of his right shoulder AC joint, which happened after falling hard on his shoulder during last Sunday's game. Allen stayed in the game, but threw an interception on his next pass attempt. He then did not practice on Wednesday, but was a full participant on Thursday. It has been clear from the beginning that Allen was never in any danger of not playing - the docs over at SICscore.com give Allen an 88 out of 100 injury score, and stated categorically that he will continue to play. The line has barely moved since, with Cincy now sitting at a 1.5 or 2 point favorite, depending on what book you're looking at. Allen's full participation in Thursday's practice is a clear signal that he'll play, and since the line hasn't moved much at all since we recommended this bet on Tuesday, I'm left puzzled as to why the line is so off. Luckily for us, it isn't our job to explain why the lines are what they are, we're only here to tell you where your edges are.
When the Bills have the ball:
To the surprise of nobody, the Bills offense is one of the best in the league, ranking 3rd in DVOA and 2nd in EPA/play. Josh Allen has been the best quarterback in the league this season according to both PFF grades and ESPN's total QBR statistic. Traditionally, Allen's Achilles heel has been turnovers, but this season has seen remarkable improvement in this aspect. His turnover-worthy play ratio, as per PFF, is now a mere 2.1%, making him the 6th best in the NFL. This achievement easily surpasses his previous best of 3.2% back in 2021. He's completing 71.7% of his passes (5.6% above expectation) and gaining 7.6 yards per attempt. On the ground, Allen is averaging 5.3 yards per attempt - the 4th best mark among quarterbacks - and has fumbled just 3 times (2 of those fumbles happened week 1). He plays behind one of the better offensive lines in football - the Bills are particularly strong at the tackle positions (Dion Dawkins and Spencer Brown), but do have some weaknesses along the interior. Dawkins is routinely one of the best tackles in football, while Spencer Brown has elevated his play greatly in his 3rd year. The receiving game naturally revolves around Stef Diggs, who's 88 targets almost double the next highest targeted receiver (Gabe Davis, 45). That said, two receivers have emerged in recent weeks. Khalil Shakir - a 2022 5th rounder out of Boise State who primarily works out of the slot - hadn't run more than 10 routes in a game before week 7. He ran 20 routes in week 7, then 33 in week 8, which resulted in a 6 catch, 92 yards effort against the Bucs. Shakir has a respectable 78.1 PFF grade on the season. The other is Dalton Kincaid, a rookie tight end who was taken 26th overall in this years draft. Kincaid's playing time increased after Dawson Knox (wrist) was placed on IR, and he's gathered 15 targets in the last two games. The Bills have had success with an offense that relies almost entirely on Diggs, and it's scary to think how potent they will be if some of the complementary options are able to play a more effective role. The Bills rushing attack is 10th in rushing DVOA, led by James Cook, who is averaging 4.8 yards per attempt this season, as well as Allen.
The Bengals defense sits at 17th in DVOA and 18th in EPA/play. They've been better against the pass (11th in DVOA) than the run (25th). The heart of their pass defense is their pass rush, which generates pressure on 35.4% of dropbacks, which is 4th best in the league. Trey Hendrickson stands out as the best pass rusher on the team - his PFF pass rushing grade of 91.6 ranks 3rd among all edge rushers, his 35 pressures ranks 13th, and his pass-rush win rate of 23.7% ranks 3rd. Hendrickson plays almost exclusively on the right side, which will pair him against the Bills best offensive lineman, LT Dion Dawkins. Sam Hubbard (23 pressures, 60.5 pass rush grade, 7.8% win rate) is second on the team in pressures. Hubbard lines up on the left side, where he'll face off against Spencer Brown. DJ Reader works the interior, a strong player in both the pass and run game, he'll have an advantage over the Bills interior, but it shouldn't be enough to make a noticeable difference. Linebackers Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson are both underperforming, and the secondary has been a mess. It's well documented that the Bengals lost both of their starting safeties in the offseason, and their attempts to replace them simply haven't worked out -- the worse of the bunch is Nick Scott, who ranks dead last in PFF grade among qualifying safeties. Chidobe Awuize has typically been their top corner, but he's fallen to 4th on the cornerback depth chart due to poor play. There isn't a single projected starter in the secondary with a PFF grade over 65.
It's my personal feeling that the Bengals will improve defensively as the season progresses - guys like Pratt, Wilson, Hinton, and Awuzie are simply too good, and at least some of them will improve their play. However, this match fits the Bills perfectly. The strength of the Bengals defense is their pass rush, but their best pass rusher will be going against the Bills best offensive lineman. Further, it isn't easy to pressure Allen to begin with. Despite a relatively slow 2.9 seconds average time to throw, Allen has been under pressure on just 31.6% of dropbacks, 6th lowest in the league. Even when he is under pressure, he isn't easy to sack - Allen's 11.9% pressure to sack ratio is 4th best. It's hard to imagine the Bengals secondary hanging with Stef Diggs and company.
When the Bengals have the ball:
The Bengals are sitting at 16th in offensive DVOA and 22nd in EPA/play. Their start to the season was horrendous, although we know that a large issue was due to Joe Burrow's lingering calf issue. The docs at SICscore.com predicted that Burrow's calf issue would limit his effectiveness "deep into October," and targeted week 8 as a time when we'd see Burrow at full strength, this was further highlighted due to the Bengals week 7 bye. Last week against a very good 49ers defense, Burrow completed 87.5% of his passes, gained 8.3 yards per attempt, and earned a 88.6 PFF grade. He also ran for 43 yards, easily surpassing his previous season high of 7 yards. It's safe to say that Joe Burrow is back.
The offense still has issues, however. Outside of Ja'Marr Chase, who has been dominant all season, there's problems all over the field. Tee Higgins, typically described as a true number 1 receiver who only plays second-fiddle due to being on the same team as Chase, has been woefully inconsistent. The offensive line has also had their issues, particularly in pass protection - they currently rank 29th in ESPN's pass block win rate metric. The run game has had it's issues as well, ranking 18th in rush offense DVOA. Joe Mixon's 2.53 yards per attempt after contact ranks 40th out of 50 qualifiers. Burrow and Chase have the star power to carry this offense, but they need several other players to step up to keep up with the NFL's best.
On defense, the Bills are 14th in DVOA and 13th in EPA/play. Their pass rush is getting pressure on 31.4% of dropbacks, 15th highest in the league. However, this number would be higher if it wasn't for their modest blitz rates (24.7%, 23rd highest), and they rank 3rd in ESPN's pass rush win rate metric. They win with a flury of pass rushers, including Greg Rousseau (24 pressures), Leonard Floyd (20), and AJ Epenesa (18) on the outside, as well as Ed Oliver (22) on the inside. Von Miller did return from his ACL injury last season, but he's been a shadow of himself, accumulating just 3 pressures in 4 games. It turns out it isn't easy for 34 year olds to return from ACL tears. The defense also took a big hit when they lost LB Matt Milano (leg) and CB Tre'Davious White (Achilles) earlier in November. The good news is LB Tyrel Dodson has played well in Milano's absence, and the Bills traded for CB Rasul Douglas at the deadline. Douglas has been a reliable corner for the Packers, giving the Bills help at their weakest position. The secondary is further blustered by safeties Michah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, arguably the strongest tandem in football.
For the matchup, one part that scares me is the Bills issues with number 1 receivers so far this year. Their DVOA against top receivers is 44.5%, 29th best in the NFL. Bringing in Douglas should help, but the Bills need to win in the trenches to try to slow down Burrow/Chase.