The Cincinnati Bengals are headed to Buffalo to play the Bills in the divisional round, thanks to some bizarre late-game management by the Baltimore Ravens during a 24-17 win on Sunday night. The Bengals did just enough to get a win over their longtime divisional rival, with the key play of the game coming on a 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard.
The name of the game in the playoffs is survive and advance, so the Bengals don’t have to be upset about the way they won. But in order to get past Buffalo, they’re going to need some more help from their offense.
Joe Burrow and the rest of the Bengals' offense had moments Sunday night when they moved the ball, but overall played below their standard against a rugged, physical Ravens defense that dramatically improved during the season. Cincinnati averaged a measly 4.3 yards per play on the night and survived on the back of third-down conversions. Converting 53.8% of your third downs is a great way to offset other offensive struggles, but it’s tough to win against better teams while also burning through first and second downs. According to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, the Bengals got a first down on just 24% of their first- and second-down plays — comparatively, the Ravens achieved a first down on 31% of their first- and second-down plays.
The Bengals need more than that. It was obvious considering they needed Hubbard to come through on an incredible clutch fumble recovery for a touchdown. Burrow was held to just 6.5 yards per attempt and was sacked four times. Joe Mixon averaged 3.5 yards per attempt, struggling to find running lanes behind the Bengals’ beleaguered offensive line.
The difficult part of the playoffs is how quick the turnaround is before playing an opponent that was even better than the last one. Bills quarterback Josh Allen is on a much higher tier of NFL existence and expectations than Tyler Huntley. Getting past Buffalo is going to take a bit more juice than the Bengals showed against the Ravens, but they can still rest a little easy knowing their defense was able to show up in a big way.
The Bengals’ offense struggling doesn't mean they're doomed as they get ready for the Bills. The Ravens match up well against them and the Bengals still have the talent to catch fire in any game they play. Burrow was clamped down on for a good portion of the game against the Ravens, but he even had a few third-and-long conversions that helped the Bengals keep some drives alive.
There’s just too much talent on the Bengals’ offensive roster to keep them in check for an entire game. They have a week to figure out how to navigate their shortcomings along the offensive line as they head into a seismic game against the Bills. It won’t be easy, but Burrow, Mixon, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are good enough to overcome that.
This team was able to win a game with a poor offensive showing, and that’s a good thing. Repeating it against the Bills might not come with the same results.