HomeSportsAFC's top seed potentially at stake in star-studded Bills-Bengals matchup

AFC’s top seed potentially at stake in star-studded Bills-Bengals matchup

There are three kings that sit atop the AFC, and it’s a big deal any time two of them meet. It’s even bigger when it happens in Week 17 and the top seed in the entire conference might just be on the line.

So yes, the stakes will be very high on Monday night when the Buffalo Bills (12-3) play at the Cincinnati Bengals (11-4). They have two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Josh Allen and Joe Burrow, two of the best offenses, two of the most explosive passing offenses, and the two longest current win streaks in the league.

And the winner will likely lock up homefield advantage should the two teams meet again in the postseason — a matchup that might just take place in the AFC Championship Game.

With apologies to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, the stakes really are that high on Monday night. The Bills are the current leaders of the AFC, by virtue of the tiebreaker they earned with a mid-October win in Kansas City. The Bills and Chiefs are just one game ahead of the Bengals, who also hold the tiebreaker over the Chiefs since they won in Kansas City, too.

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And the two teams are definitely red-hot. The Bills have won six straight, averaging 28 points along the way. The Bengals’ win streak is at seven, and they’re scoring average is 29.

Something has to give in what could be an explosive matchup. Here’s a closer look:

MATCHUP I: Bills WR Stefon Diggs vs. Bengals CB Eli Apple

There is some concern up in Buffalo about what’s been going on with the Bills’ No. 1 receiver, who has just 10 catches for 123 yards and no touchdowns over the previous three games. Diggs hasn’t had a 100-yard receiving game in his last six, dating back to mid-November. And last week, despite a favorable matchup against a vulnerable Bears secondary, he had just two catches for 26 yards.

Despite that, the Bills aren’t exactly hurting for points. But in a game that could put a lot of strain on the scoreboard, they need Diggs to light up Apple, who is the Bengals’ top cornerback by default. Apple could get help from Cam Taylor-Britt, but he’s dealing with a stinger. So the work is likely to fall mostly on Apple’s shoulders.

Diggs, quite simply, is everything to the Bills. He’s got 101 catches for 1,325 yards and 10 touchdowns — more than double the catches and nearly double the yards of anyone else on the team. And since, outside of Allen, the Bills don’t really rely on their run game, stopping Diggs might turn out to be Cincinnati’s key to this game.

MATCHUP II: Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase vs. Bills CB Tre’Davious White

With all due respect to Diggs, the 22-year-old Chase is the best weapon in this game. And he’s hot, averaging eight catches and 89 yards in four games since returning from his hip injury.

Chase will almost certainly be shadowed by White, a two-time Pro Bowler who is still working his way back from the torn ACL he suffered last year since he returned to the lineup on Thanksgiving. White may not be playing like a Pro Bowler just yet, but he has the potential to keep Chase contained — at least more so than the rotation of CBs Dane Jackson and Kalir Elam on the other side.

The importance of the matchup is pretty obvious. If Chase has an explosive game, even the Bills could struggle to keep up. If Chase is shut down, that gives Buffalo an enormous advantage.


The Bills and Bengals have combined for 23 wins, which is tied for the most ever for two teams playing on Monday Night Football. And the 78 total touchdowns that Josh Allen and Joe Burrow have combined for this season is the most ever between two opposing quarterbacks in the Monday night game. Really, it’s remarkable this game was picked for MNF way back in April. They couldn’t possibly have made a better choice for a late-season, nationally televised, prime-time game.

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Both of these teams have strong defenses and both teams can run the football, but let’s face it: This game is all about the quarterbacks. It would be a shock to everyone in the NFL if the score doesn’t end up in the 30s for both teams with Allen and Burrow taking their turns making big plays. Both of them are capable of huge games, too. But Burrow has had a lot more of them lately. Outside of Allen’s big game against the Dolphins — 304 yards and four passing touchdowns — he’s been almost human over the past six weeks. He’s averaged 216 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. In the same span, Burrow has averaged 287.5 yards during that same stretch, with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Yes, Allen is pretty dynamic running the ball too. But he’s going to be running into the NFL’s No. 7 rushing defense, which is giving up just 85 yards per game on the ground in the past five games. Maybe it’s nitpicking, but in a game that’s destined to come down to who has the ball last, that’s enough of a reason to pick the Bengals, who are suddenly looking a lot like the AFC champs they were last year.

Bengals 35, Bills 32

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Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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