ORCHARD PARK, NY — Through years together as decorated Buffalo Bills safeties, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are known for speaking the same language, the defense’s ultra-efficient communicators.
Asked about a specific Cincinnati Bengals topic Sunday afternoon, they might have needed a translator.
“It’s a good question,” Poyer said, shaking his head and looking at the floor of his Highmark Stadium locker stall. “I don’t know, honestly. I’m sure you take something from it, but it’s going to be a brand new game.”
A few minutes earlier, Hyde paused to consider while pulling up his socks.
“You can learn a lot,” Hyde said, “from one play.”
Three weeks ago, Buffalo and Cincinnati played for 9 minutes, 2 seconds before a nightmare unfolded.
Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest upon making a routine tackle and collapsed. CPR and a defibrillator were needed to bring Hamlin back to life. He remained unconscious and on a ventilator for two days.
The NFL canceled the game, wiped out all statistics and pulled the broadcast from its replay service. Officially, the game does not exist.
But it happened.
Now that we know Hamlin is recovering — he was able to reunite with teammates at One Bills Drive last week — everyone can revisit without guilt the seven Bengals offensive plays and 11 Bills plays they ran against each other in Paycor Stadium.
Their rematch was cemented Sunday. The Bills edged the Miami Dolphins, and a few hours later the Bengals escaped the Baltimore Ravens. The victors will meet 3 p.m. Sunday in Highmark Stadium.
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How much is footage from their abbreviated matchup worth?
“I know it’s tough for our guys to watch because of Damar,” said Bills left guard Rodger Saffold, “but you have to take a detailed look at it. I don’t think it would be professional of us to not take any of those plays into account.
“It’s a chess match when it comes to those types of games. Preparation is going to be key.”
Bengals coach Zac Taylor leaned toward Poyer’s uncertainty regarding the value of those nine fresh minutes between teams that have since played two times apiece.
“I’ve never been in that situation in my life,” Taylor said. “It’s so strange because you practiced a whole week, and it wasn’t like it was nine weeks ago; it was two weeks ago. There’s a balance there. What you adjust, what you keep, both teams are going to be dealing with that.”
While coaches and players can glean nuanced insight from each formation, blocking scheme and stunt, 18 snaps shouldn’t be used to evaluate what might have transpired the rest of the way or how to place your bets.
Buffalo trailed 7-3 after one possession apiece but opened as a 3.5-point favorite for Sunday.
“It’s an incredibly small sample size,” Pro Football Focus lead analyst Sam Monson said. “At 18 offensive plays, the Chargers were up 7-0 on the Jaguars, had the ball and were about to score again and take command. Anything can happen over 18 plays.
“It was certainly interesting that Cincinnati was leading and looking good in the game, but who knows how the next 120 plays would have unfolded?”
That said, substantial action was packed into those 18 offensive plays, one pass interference penalty, one field goal, one extra point and three kickoffs.
If coaches find value in merely peeping an opponent’s formation before calling a timeout at critical junctures such as fourth-and-inches, then 9:02 of game film must provide precious clues.
“There really is a lot to learn,” Saffold said. “We can see how they’re attacking us. We can see the defense in front of us.
“Both offenses were moving the ball extremely well. It looked like it was going to be a shootout.”
Those who weren’t watching live will have to take Saffold’s word for it because play-by-play and statistical data has been erased from most sites.
Cincinnati won the coin toss and wanted the ball. Tyler Bass’ kick was a touchback.
On the first snap, Joe Burrow arced a deep ball down the left sideline for Ja’Marr Chase. Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White was flagged 29 yards for pass interference.
Burrow connected with tight end Hayden Hurst for 4 yards. Joe Mixon rushed for 5 yards. Bills slot cornerback Taron Johnson left the game with a head injury. Burrow picked up the first down himself with a 2-yard run, then found Hurst again for 21 yards. On the next play, Burrow spotted Tyler Boyd for the 14-yard touchdown.
“They scored on the opening drive,” Hyde said, “so you obviously have to look back and see how they did that.”
Taylor’s offense has put a slew of early scores on film. They popped an opening-drive touchdown seven times if you count Week 17’s nullified contest. They started with a field goal three times.
In Sunday night’s playoff three-match with the Ravens, Cincinnati began with a field goal, followed up with a touchdown on its second possession and tacked its other offensive touchdown on the first series after halftime.
“Opening-drive touchdowns, we’ve had it happen before,” Poyer said. “We’ve been able to down settle as a defense and counterpunch.”
But Buffalo’s defense has been forced to wait three weeks to strike back against Cincinnati’s opening salvo.
For a month, the Bengals have been white hot from the jump.
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Take their playoff opener, the first three series against the Ravens in the regular-season finale, the lone completed series against the Bills and the first three series Week 16 against the New England Patriots, and the Bengals have scored six touchdowns and three field goals with zero punts or turnovers. All against quality competition.
“The first 15 plays are scripted,” said Hyde, sidelined by neck surgery all season but recently back at practice. “They’re in a flow, a rhythm. As a defense, you don’t panic over that.”
The Bills’ defense has surrendered an opening-drive touchdown six times.
“Teams have the first 15 plays usually schemed up pretty well,” Poyer said. “So, to say you’re going to stop every team on every opening drive is tough. To be able to handle adjustments throughout the game, that’s what is important.”
Maybe the Bills’ veteran safeties still do speak the same language after all.
Buffalo responded to Cincinnati with a long and eclectic field-goal drive.
Josh Allen hits Stefon Diggs for 17 yards and then misfired with Isaiah McKenzie. Allen ran for 9 yards. Devin Singletary ran 3 yards to move the chains. Allen scrambled for 5 yards and found Diggs again for 9 yards. James Cook took the next two carries 18 yards.
Allen then found rarely used Reggie Gilliam for 7 yards on what would have been the fullback’s second target in almost three months, a potential clue for Cincinnati’s defensive staff. Allen’s next two throws fell incomplete.
“We’re probably going to have the same game plan,” Bates said, “because we weren’t able to show as much. Those first couple of drives, you can’t really say too much about it because the first 15 plays you just don’t know. They’re kind of feeling out how we’re adjusting to things and all that stuff.”
There’s that 15-play reference again.
Bass made the chip shot, then kicked off short to Trayveon Williams, who returned it 26 yards. Mixon ran for 7 yards, and Burrow threw to Tee Higgins across the middle for 13 yards on the final play.
“It’s like watching your upcoming opponent’s third preseason game,” Hyde said. “You pay attention to what their starters did on that opening drive, but you understand they might switch it up. You never know.”
Saffold pointed out all NFL matchups are guessing games regardless of what’s already known. Teams go deep into the film room, sometimes several years, in hopes of unearthing a strategic hint.
“We’ll be back to Square One,” Bates said. “They won’t know what we’re on. We won’t know what they’ll have schemed up for this week. We’ll go in and watch tape just like any other week and make sure we’re prepared.”
Bills defensive tackle Tim Settle didn’t want to get into the specifics of what transpired three weeks ago.
Regardless, he mused, every bit of information will be devoured, and adjustments made.
“I’m not trying to go back and think on it,” Settle said. “You couldn’t tell nothing. It was too early in the game, but we’re going to be ready if they try the same things or not.
“We’re not going to beat around the bush about nothing. We’re going to be straight to the point. We’ve been in this situation. They could bring Joe Montana out there, whoever they want. It doesn’t matter. We’re just going to keep coming at them.”
Contributing: Paul Dehner Jr. and Jay Morrison
(Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)