CINCINNATI — Even after the Cincinnati Bengals made it to the Super Bowl, returned most of their starters and upgraded the offensive line, national pundits deemed the Buffalo Bills the best team in the AFC going into this season.
Bengals players and coaches say they never paid attention to that, but they know they will need to beat Buffalo to achieve their goals and complete their “unfinished business.”
The Bengals (11-4) have a chance to prove they are stillthe team to beat in the conference when they host the Bills (12-3) on Monday night at Paycor Stadium. Buffalo holds the No. 1 spot in the AFC playoff seeding picture with two games to play, but Cincinnati, currently at No. 3, would move into the top two ahead of the Bills with a win.
“Obviously we know what’s at stake, but we just have to take care of business,” Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said. “We know how good of a team they are, but they also know how good we are, so it’s gonna be a good fun matchup come Monday night and we’ll be ready for it.”
Preseason power rankings by outlets such as ESPN.com and NFL.com had the Bills at No. 1 and the Bengals at No. 5 with the Chiefs also ahead of them. The Super Bowl champion L.A. Rams understandably were above Cincinnati, as well, but wide receiver Tyler Boyd said he knew the Bengals belonged higher with the talent they had back, regardless of what people thought.
The Bengals since have proved they belong in that conversation, and Monday is a chance to show it against the top seed.
“Every team and everybody in the country knows who’s the team to beat, and that’s us,” Boyd said.
Although the Bengals could have been ranked higher to open the season, an 0-2 start and getting swept in their first three divisional games didn’t help their case. They’ve come a long way since then, though. They’ve battled the adversity of injuries they managed to avoid last year and the latest test is overcoming the loss of right tackle La’el Collins, who went on injured reserve Friday with a left knee injury.
Quarterback Joe Burrow told everyone to “relax” after the Week 2 loss at Dallas, and after that, the Bengals have won 11 of 13 games, including a current winning streak of seven straight. During that stretch, they also lost cornerback Chidobe Awuzie to a season-ending injury and missed Ja’Marr Chase for four games, among a couple other short-term absences.
“Our mindset has remained the same,” Burrow said Thursday. “Nobody was worried then. We were treating every week the same. I think that’s why we’re so good is because we have veteran guys that treat every week the same. Every practice the same. They are trying to get better, pick something to work on. We’re a much better team than we were then. But that’s just because of how guys prepare and work.”
Just like last year, the Bengals are playing their best late in the season. During their current win streak, they have defeated Tennessee, Kansas City, Tampa Bay and New England, along with avenging AFC North losses to Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
While some view Monday’s matchup as a measuring stick game for Cincinnati, Burrow said this team is beyond that concept.
“We’ve beaten everybody,” Burrow said. “We know we can play against everybody. We’ve done it in the biggest moments. So like I said, we’re treating every game the same. We’ve played everyone in the last two years. We haven’t played the Bills yet, so that will be a fun challenge.”
Cincinnati’s win over the Chiefs on Dec. 4 served as a statement this team is still a contender, marking the Bengals’ third time beating them this calendar year. The first one came in a Jan. 2 matchup that enabled the Bengals to clinch the 2021 AFC North title, and they won again in the AFC Championship four weeks later.
The Chiefs have one more win than Cincinnati, though, and will remain ahead of the Bengals in the playoff race if they win their last two games. Buffalo has been atop most power rankings for the majority of the season, and the stats back up the Bills’ consistency. They are scoring the fourth most points and allowing the second fewest points of anyone in the league.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said the No. 1 seed is a goal but the team isn’t thinking about that this week.
“It’s just a narrow focus … at this point to get to Monday,” Taylor said. “Again, every goal we’ve ever had goes through Buffalo right now and this opportunity that’s right in front of us. We’ve gotta handle business Monday night before we can focus on that.”
Bills at Bengals, 8:30 p.m., ESPN, ABC, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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