Can Josh Allen Avoid Mistakes Against Cincinnati?

Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Divisional - Finally, we get the matchup we were due three weeks ago. Week 17's highly anticipated Monday Night Football matchup was cut short and later cancelled after Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and was rushed to the hospital. Happily, Hamlin is back sharing his smile around Orchard Park, his charity $8.6 million richer. The fear and worry that washed over millions of viewers that night has subsided, and now we are rightfully getting a redux of the matchup that could have re-shaped the AFC playoff picture.

The Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, two of the five best teams by total DVOA, nearly did not make it here. A blitz-happy Miami Dolphins defense nearly forced enough mistakes to pull a massive double-digit upset in Buffalo, while the Bengals needed a 14-point-swinging, 98-yard fumble recovery touchdown to seal the deal against Baltimore. The two teams saw blood drawn, chumming up the waters for what is surely going to be an all-out slugfest. While there may be some questions about where this game should be played and the seeding of the teams, this is the matchup fans have been waiting a month to see.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

DVOA 18.1% (5) 35.0% (1)
WEI DVOA 25.3% (4) 40.5% (2)
Bengals on Offense
DVOA 14.2% (4) -11.0% (4)
WEI DVOA 20.0% (3) -12.8% (4)
PASS 24.9% (7) -4.9% (9)
RUSH 7.5% (4) -19.7% (3)
Bills on Offense
DVOA -4.4% (11) 19.0% (2)
WEI DVOA -5.4% (11) 19.8% (4)
PASS -0.5% (12) 36.5% (2)
RUSH -9.5% (14) 0.5% (11)
Special Teams
DVOA -0.5% (18) 5.0% (1)

If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.


CIN Week-to-Week DVOA

The biggest change to the Bengals' offense between Week 17 and now is the shuffling at offensive line. Starting right tackle La'el Collins has already been lost for the year with an ACL tear. Now right guard Alex Cappa is nursing an ankle injury and left tackle Jonah Williams suffered a dislocated kneecap last week against the Ravens. Both Cappa and Williams are considered week-to-week by Zac Taylor, and neither has practiced this week.

Most of this year's improvements on the Bengals' offensive line have ended up on the injury report. According to Next Gen Stats, Joe Burrow has cut his time to throw from 2.69 seconds to 2.55, while the team's adjusted sack rate fell from 9.1% to 7.0%. Burrow's intended air yards per attempt fell from 8.1 to 6.8 year-over-year according to Pro Football Reference, prioritizing more quick passing to avoid pressure.

The Bills would be able to wreak havoc if Von Miller were healthy, but they still have very capable pass-rushers without him. In last week's game against the Dolphins, Buffalo was able to pressure Skylar Thompson on 25.5% of dropbacks. While the jump from Thompson to Burrow is massive, there is a drop-off from Miami's offensive line to an injured Bengals line.

The Bengals offense is not a tricky one. Cincinnati ranks second-to-last in play-action frequency and last in percentage of plays with pre-snap motion, according to Sports Info Solutions. For the most part, Cincinnati lines up their best 11, led by wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, and tells defenses to come beat them. That's going to be a challenge for Buffalo. While Buffalo ranks ninth in defensive passing DVOA, they rank 29th in passing DVOA against WR1s and 14th against WR2s.

One thing the Baltimore Ravens did well against the Bengals in the wild-card round came in their pre-snap disguises. Baltimore often mixed up their coverages and pass rush packages pre-snap, causing Burrow to hold and read, throwing him out of the rhythm Cincinnati's offense relies on. Buffalo rarely does that. Their defense, similar to Cincinnati's offense, has little disguise, choosing instead to go best-on-best. Buffalo ran some press coverage against Miami's wide receivers in order to achieve a similar effect.

Hopefully, Buffalo will give rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam some more playing time in this game. It may sound like an odd thing to say about a backup rookie corner against a team loaded with wide receiver talent, but Elam certainly earned more playing time in the wild-card round. According to Pro Football Reference, Elam was targeted six times, his highest total since Week 5 against the Steelers. He allowed two completions on those six targets for 25 yards, with two passes defensed and an interception. This was the first time this season that Elam allowed a sub-50-percent completion rating.

The Bengals may boast one of the better running back tandems in football, but they will have their hands full with the Bills defense. Buffalo ranks third in defensive rushing DVOA; they have strung together negative defensive rushing DVOA finishes in nine of their last 10 games. Against most teams, the versatility of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine usually mitigates some of that dominance by the Bills run defense. Cincinnati has the third-most receptions by running backs. However, Buffalo is also third in DVOA defending passes to running backs.

If there are any takeaways from Cincinnati's abbreviated Week 17 game script, the Bengals will be aggressive attacking this Buffalo defense. In that game, Cincinnati won the coin toss, elected to receive, then hit a huge gain on a deep pass on their first play from scrimmage. While Burrow does not attack deep often, throwing there 14% of the time, his 82.0% deep passing DVOA is sixth among quarterbacks this season. Buffalo is 15th in DVOA when defending deep passes.


BUF Week-to-Week DVOA

If Cincinnati can learn anything from the Miami Dolphins' performance last week, it's that pressure is key. Miami was able to pressure Josh Allen on 24.5% of dropbacks, sacking him seven times and forcing three fumbles on 18 blitzes. The Bills offensive line will have their work cut out for them with Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. Hendrickson ranks fourth among edge rushers in ESPN's Pass Rush Win Rate, while Hubbard ranks fifth in Run Stop Win Rate among edge defenders. While Cincinnati boasts a strong defensive front, the Bengals rarely get home; their 30 sacks on the season are the fourth-fewest in the league, while their 6.1% adjusted sack rate is fifth-lowest.

While Cincinnati boasts some very strong safety play, with Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III each boasting four interceptions this season, the Bills should have a leg up when attacking their cornerbacks. With Chidobe Awuzie out for the season, rookie corner Cam Taylor-Britt has stepped up in his place. Taylor-Britt allowed 9.3 yards per pass attempt, which ranks 20th among qualifying cornerbacks according to Sports Info Solutions. Eli Apple is a hyper-volatile corner who is averaging his highest yards per target allowed since joining the Bengals, per SIS.

One person who will need to step up Sunday: Gabriel Davis. Davis saw his biggest workload since November against the Dolphins, breaking 100 receiving yards for just the second time this season. With Stefon Diggs serving as the only major threat in Buffalo's passing attack, teams obviously tend to key on him in pass coverage, offering additional help over top or outright doubling him.

That could very well be the case this weekend; if it does, Davis better be ready. Cincinnati has a sixth-best -16.2% DVOA against WR1s, but a 31st-ranked 28.4% DVOA against WR2s. No team in the NFL has a bigger disparity in DVOA between WR1s and WR2s. Last week, Davis had some help from Dawson Knox against a Dolphins team that ranks bottom-five in DVOA against tight ends. This Bengals team not only ranks fifth in the league against tight ends, but also ranks second to only San Francisco on passes to running backs.

The Bills passing attack's performance on Sunday will rely heavily on whether offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey did some self-scouting over the weekend. He had some brutal miscues in play-calling last week, specifically when it came to over-aggression. Vertical routes are all well and good, but there is a time and place for them. Following the Dolphins' touchdown to make it 34-31, Buffalo got the ball back with 10:53 left in the fourth quarter. Instead of burning clock by running the ball—or even throwing short—Dorsey dialed up a first-and-10 go-ball to Davis. The pass fell incomplete, but Davis stayed on the field visibly gassed. Dorsey pretty much called the same play to Davis, who was exhausted and could not complete the play. Allen was finally sacked on third-and-long for a three-and-out. Buffalo will not be able to make such mistakes against a potent Bengals offense. While no one throws deep more than Allen, who led the league with 135 deep pass attempts, the Bengals defense ranks sixth in defensive pass DVOA on deep passes.

It will be really interesting to see how the Bills incorporate their run game in this one. Buffalo's 11th-ranked run game does not have the same prowess as their passing attack, but the Bills' 36.6% rushing DVOA against the Dolphins was their fourth-best single-game mark of the season. James Cook saw his second-biggest workload of his rookie campaign and scored his second touchdown in three weeks, out-carrying lead back Devin Singletary in the process. Cook is sparingly used in the passing game, but his volume has increased over the last six weeks. Despite not seeing a target against Miami, 19 of his 32 targets have come since Week 12.

At the end of the day, this game will fall on Josh Allen's shoulders, for better or for worse. It should be for the better. He is easily one of the best quarterbacks in football, one of the highest-rated quarterbacks in both DVOA and DYAR. It just comes down to mistakes. Allen coughed the ball up seven times in his last three games. It is a shade of pre-leap Allen we seldom see nowadays, but it is the kind of thing that kills the Bills.

This may be the week when Allen breaks out the run game again. He notched a career-high 124 carries this year, and the Bengals tend to struggle against mobile quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson pasted a 12.0% rushing DVOA on 10 attempts in his lone matchup against Cincinnati the season. Jacoby Brissett and Deshaun Watson had rushing DVOAs of 37.7% and 22.4%, respectively. Allen's legs could be the X-factor if things do not start in Buffalo's favor.


Now two weeks removed from their own all-time kickoff return performance by Nyheim Hines, Buffalo's kickoff team had some trouble containing Miami's return game. River Cracraft and Cedrick Wilson Jr. combined for 76 return yards on three kickoffs, including a 50-yard return from Wilson. Tyler Bass also landed a kickoff out of bounds, aiding in Miami's field position. For Cincinnati, last year's playoff hopeful Evan McPherson started his encore performance on rocky ground. He missed just his third extra point of the season against Baltimore and was only tasked with one field goal attempt—a 39-yarder he made.


No matter what way this shakes out, prepare for offensive fireworks. The matchup stacks up very favorably for Cincinnati's loaded receiving corps against Buffalo's secondary. Gabriel Davis and Stefon Diggs will have opportunities against a pair of weak Bengals cornerbacks, while Josh Allen will have a chance to unleash his rushing ability. While the biggest decider of outcome will be Allen's mistakes, the most intriguing battle of this game lies in the Bills front seven against a banged-up Bengals line. If Joe Burrow can avoid pressure by getting the ball out quickly and not let the breakdown affect the offense, Cincinnati has a real shot of moving on to a second straight AFC Championship Game. If Buffalo can get home and disrupt a potent Bengals passing attack, the Bills will be in prime position to set up revenge for 13 Seconds.





DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.


22 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2023, 2:02pm

#9 by rh1no // Jan 20, 2023 - 1:50pm

I don't doubt that Allen will make a mistake or two, nor do I doubt that the Bengals will be able to capitalize on those mistakes. Those mistakes won't be the biggest factor in determining the outcome of the game, however; this one really will be won or lost in the trenches when the Bengals have the ball.

2021 second-round pick Jackson Carman will be turning 23 on game day, and while he struggled in 6 starts at right guard last year, he's returning to his college position of left tackle for this game. Will that make a difference, or will Buffalo still be able to overpower him the same way the Ravens ran over him last Sunday?

Meanwhile, Max Scharping will be at right guard, just his second start for the Bengals but his fourth career playoff start overall. He previously started a whole season for the Texans, but ... you know ... the Texans.

I might be able to talk myself into this motley crew being "more than the sum of its parts" if they had any time during the regular season to develop into a cohesive unit. Being thrown together with just a few days to practice before a playoff game in Buffalo, however, doesn't seem like a recipe for success. 

Last year's Super Bowl provided the blueprint for beating this type of Bengals team: keep hammering the offensive line until it breaks. Burrow will get some big completions to Chase, but the Bills offense can stay competitive while the defense grinds down the Bengals' patchwork offensive line enough to pull away late.

I hope I'm wrong. This should be a fun game either way.

Points: 0

#10 by Will Allen // Jan 20, 2023 - 2:33pm

Sure he can. Will he, and if he doesn't, how critical will those mistakes be? Who knows? 

Points: 0

#11 by theslothook // Jan 20, 2023 - 3:20pm

After their game against the Chiefs, I declared Josh Allen a tier 1 quarterback. I probably have to walk that back a bit. He's obviously a terrific player, but the turnovers bring enough uncertainty to his game that you're just reflexively uncomfortable having the ball in his hands in a way that that's not true for tier 1 QBs.

Points: 1

#12 by rh1no // Jan 20, 2023 - 4:21pm

I think Allen has earned his place in the top tier of quarterbacks alongside Mahomes and Burrow. Mahomes struggled with turnovers a year ago, but he got that problem sorted out and I trust Allen will do the same. Burrow held onto the ball too long last season and was an interception machine the first few games of 2022, but he's quickened his release and gotten better at throwing the ball away. None of these guys is perfect, but each of them has the drive to keep learning from their mistakes.

If Hurts keeps up his level of production next season, I'd consider him a top tier quarterback, too.

Points: 0

#13 by theslothook // Jan 20, 2023 - 4:36pm

I don't know how others feel, but Mahomes remains the defacto answer of who do you trust at quarterback. I feel like there is a difference between him and the two names you mentioned. Maybe Burrow and Herbert could get there, but they never have thus far. 

Hurts is still an unknown to me and I dont want to lump him into a tier 1 as of yet. Goff, everyone's favorite whipping boy, has three top 5 DVOA finishes. Allen has 2 and Burrow has 0.

Points: 3

#15 by matu_72 // Jan 20, 2023 - 5:34pm

I personally think Mahomes has truly stepped up to a level to where he's 1 of 1 now. I dont think there's another QB in the league that's proven to be quite on his level.

Points: 2

#16 by Dales // Jan 20, 2023 - 5:34pm

Allen on his best day can give Mahomes on his best day a serious run for his money (see last year's playoff epic). But Mahomes is practically never far from his best day. The only thing that has me not thinking of him as the GOAT is that Brady existed.

Allen just isn't as consistent as Mahomes.

I think Herbert is a great prospect but he has to show me a good amount more to put him in the same thought as Burrow. 

Points: 1

#17 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 20, 2023 - 5:42pm

But Mahomes is practically never far from his best day. The only thing that has me not thinking of him as the GOAT is that Brady existed.

When did Peyton Manning die?

I recall Manning just lighting everyone up on two teams, and he's conquered Belichick Mountain more often than Mahomes has.

Points: 4

#30 by Dales // Jan 21, 2023 - 5:44pm

I hear ya and meant no disrespect to Peyton. It’s just that for the milieu of pocket passers, Brady’s career eclipses his, reducing it to the classic peak versus accumulated accomplishments. Mahomes is simply better than any QB I’ve ever seen. The deeper he goes into his career at this level the harder it will be to deny him. Brady playing well into his forties complicates that.

Points: 0

#31 by Dales // Jan 21, 2023 - 5:44pm

I hear ya and meant no disrespect to Peyton. It’s just that for the milieu of pocket passers, Brady’s career eclipses his, reducing it to the classic peak versus accumulated accomplishments. Mahomes is simply better than any QB I’ve ever seen. The deeper he goes into his career at this level the harder it will be to deny him. Brady playing well into his forties complicates that.

Points: 0

#32 by Dales // Jan 21, 2023 - 5:44pm

I hear ya and meant no disrespect to Peyton. It’s just that for the milieu of pocket passers, Brady’s career eclipses his, reducing it to the classic peak versus accumulated accomplishments. Mahomes is simply better than any QB I’ve ever seen. The deeper he goes into his career at this level the harder it will be to deny him. Brady playing well into his forties complicates that.

Points: 0

#18 by theslothook // Jan 20, 2023 - 6:14pm

For mahomes to enter the goat conversation, it's going to take many years and many different permutations from the team he has now.

If you want to argue the way he has played thus far is better than any quarterback has in the past. Well I disagree with that as well. By pure numbers they're already are some names you would take ahead of him. By pure eye test, which seems greatly biased by athletic gifts, I would take 2011 Aaron Rodgers over Mahomes or any other quarterback I've seen.

Points: 2

#25 by tireslasher // Jan 21, 2023 - 2:32am

I've been watching football for 40 years and I have never seen a QB like Aaron Rodgers, circa Nov 2010 - Dec 2011. I'd like to see the analytics for that period. He was truly unstoppable. 19-0 including playoffs, if memory serves.

Points: 0

#14 by IlluminatusUIUC // Jan 20, 2023 - 5:13pm

How comfortable you are with Josh Allen under center is inversely proportional to the difficulty of what you're asking from him. If you want him to gain 3 first downs to close out a 4 minute offense - terror. If you're asking him to convert a 4th and 17 in a tropical storm - easy peasy. 

Points: 8

#19 by RolandHooks // Jan 20, 2023 - 7:29pm

A lot of this game will come down to whether Allen will listen to his coaches, who have to be saying "stop looking for the kill shot on every play".  I assume they have been telling him this for weeks and he hasn't listened yet, so my confidence is not high he'll start now.  Daboll had decades of coordinator experience, Dorsey is a newbie - I wonder if Allen just thinks he knows better or simply can't help himself.

Points: 0

#21 by theslothook // Jan 20, 2023 - 7:44pm

A lot of this game will come down to whether Allen will listen to his coaches, who have to be saying "stop looking for the kill shot on every play

This comment made me wonder, why is everyone, including the writer of this article, so quick to pin the blame on Dorsey? How do we KNOW that its Dorsey that's intentionally calling deep shots instead of standard passing plays? If Allen had thrown short or intermediate routes instead, would anyone be second guessing the play calling? 

Points: 0

#23 by RolandHooks // Jan 20, 2023 - 8:53pm

I'm not blaming Dorsey entirely, it's Allen I'm worried about. I don't think Dorsey's plays and play calls are as good / imaginative as Daboll's, and the results and resulting margins this year have been way too thin IMO.  Really the only major difference on offense from 2021 to 2022 has been the coaching. It's as if Allen started out the first two games in 2022 against the rams and titans in last year's playoff mode, and then slowly reverted to old sketchy tendencies. The results are well summarized by someone recently, the games have been like 3 hour heart attacks for Bills fans. 

Points: 0

#24 by theslothook // Jan 20, 2023 - 9:29pm

I can sympathize as a Colts fan. One of the few benefits of being a fan of the NFL when your team absolutely stinks is that you don't have to live every game in the playoffs as if it's full of heart-wrenching anxiety

Points: 1

#20 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Jan 20, 2023 - 7:41pm

Bengals made it to the Super Bowl last year winning playoff games they shouldn't have.  Now they've started this year's playoffs the same way.

Game probably comes down to Cincy O-line protection problems versus Josh Allen turnovers.  Whichever causes the least trouble for their team will likely be the winner.  I consider Buffalo to be the better team, but playoff Cincy winning again wouldn't surprise me at this point.

Points: 1

#26 by tireslasher // Jan 21, 2023 - 2:52am

The Bengals have had a very improbable string of luck and fortune over the brief course of the Burrow era. Last year they got several games against teams with numerous starters out due to Covid, including the big 527 passing yards game against the Ravens, when their entire starting secondary was inactive. This year they not only played the NFC South, but the Panthers with a beat up secondary, the Falcons without any starting corners, the Saints without Lattimore, division games against Cleveland without Denzel Ward, the Steelers without Watt, and the Ravens resting starters in Game 17. If Lamar Jackson plays last week they almost certainly lose. Eventually that good fortune turns bad.

Points: 0

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