By MITCH STACY
CINCINNATI (AP) — This was the dream scenario for the NFL’s schedule-makers: Two of the league’s hottest teams and flashiest quarterbacks facing off on the final Monday night of the season in a game thick with playoff drama.
The Buffalo Bills (12-3) and Cincinnati Bengals (11-4) have secured playoff spots and are vying to be the AFC’s No. 1 seed. That would mean a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The prime-time game in Cincinnati also marks the first meeting of quarterbacks who are both just 26 but already superstars — Josh Allen of the Bills and the Bengals’ Joe Burrow.
“Everybody who watches Josh, there’s no secrets about why he’s so good,” Burrow said. “He’s fun to watch, runs around, makes plays, makes throws nobody else can make. He’s just an exciting player.”
Buffalo, the AFC East champion, can hold the No. 1 spot by beating the Bengals and then the Patriots in the final week. A loss in either one opens a door for AFC West champs Kansas City (12-3) to claim the top seed.
The Bengals, currently the third seed, will need to beat the Bills and then the Ravens in the final week — and hope Kansas City loses — to have a shot at the top spot.
“This is what you work so hard throughout the body of the season is to come down the stretch here and play these games,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “We’ve got a lot of respect for the Bengals. They’re the defending AFC champions and represented the AFC in the Super Bowl. And came within a whisker of winning that game, right?”
The Bengals are coming off a seventh straight win that almost turned into a nightmare. Cincinnati ran up a 22-0 lead at halftime, then had to overcome mistakes and repel the Patriots’ second-half comeback to win 22-18. Consistency has been an issue for the Bengals, but they keep doing enough to win.
Coach Zac Taylor said the Bengals, win or lose, have been especially good at shelving the last game, staying in the moment and preparing for the next one.
“This team hasn’t backed down from anybody yet,” Taylor said.
The Bills got a 35-13 division-clinching win over the Chicago Bears on Christmas Eve, their sixth straight win.
WELCOME TO BUFFALO
Safety Jordan Poyer said the Bills want the advantages that come with being the No. 1 seed.
“I think in the past we’ve obviously seen what it’s like to have to go on the road and win playoff games,” he said. “But it is important for us to get that home-field advantage, to get the crowd at home, the cold weather games. Not a lot of people want to come to Buffalo in late January, early February. So we’re going to take one game at a time. We’ve got our eyes on Cincinnati right now.”
The Bills haven’t enjoyed many normal weeks of practice due to their schedule and weather-related disruptions in the past month. This week was no different, even though the team has a nine-day break between games.
A blizzard that hit Buffalo last Friday forced the Bills to travel a day early to Chicago last week. And the three-day storm led to Buffalo spending Christmas Eve in Chicago following the game. On Sunday, the Bills flew to Rochester, New York, and then made the 90-minute ride back to Buffalo by bus.
A storm last month led to the Bills losing two days of practice when their “home” game against Cleveland was relocated to Detroit on Nov. 20. After beating the Browns, the Bills then held one practice before returning to Detroit five days later to beat the Lions on Thanksgiving.
Cincinnati has started the same five offensive linemen in every game this season. But the continuity will be broken when right tackle La’el Collins sits out Monday night with a knee injury suffered in last week’s game. Hakeem Adeniji, who struggled in the postseason last year, or Isaiah Prince will start in Collins’ place.
Tight end Hayden Hurst (calf) and defensive end Sam Hubbard (calf) could be back for the Bills game, Taylor said. Both were out last week.
Allen understands the importance of spreading the ball around, while also making sure to get his top threat, receiver Stefon Diggs, involved.
That hasn’t been the case of late when it comes to Diggs, and Allen wants to resolve that issue.
Against Chicago, Diggs finished with two catches and 26 yards, his second-lowest output in three seasons in Buffalo. After racking up 91 catches for 1,202 yards and 10 TDs in his first 12 games, Diggs has been limited to 10 catches for 123 yards and no scores in his past three.
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow contributed.
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