NFL Preview - Cincinnati (3-2) at Buffalo (2-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - There's playing to the level of your competition, and then there's this.
The Cincinnati Bengals, fresh of a defeat of a third multiple-appearance Super Bowl quarterback last week, will go to the other side of the spectrum on Sunday afternoon when they meet the Buffalo Bills and their suddenly starting signal-caller, journeyman Thaddeus Lewis.
Undrafted after a four-year collegiate career at Duke, Lewis is on his fourth NFL organization in three years. He was initially signed by the St. Louis Rams in 2010, was waived and picked up by the Cleveland Browns in 2012, then waived again and added by the Detroit Lions in May.
The Bills, who lost rookie starter E.J. Manuel to a sprained LCL in his right knee last week against Cleveland, had traded for Lewis in the summer and placed him on their practice squad after he'd played well enough to prompt the release of former Southern California star Matt Leinart.
Manuel's No. 2 man, Jeff Tuel, was thoroughly unimpressive in six possessions against the Browns, paving the way for Lewis to be added to the roster and handed the starter's reins after four punts, an interception returned for a score and a turnover on downs in the 37-24 loss.
In his only previous NFL start, with Cleveland last December, Lewis completed 22-of-32 attempts for 204 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 14-point loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It was best for us to move on and play with Thaddeus," Bills coach Doug Marrone said. "He knows the whole system inside out, so at least we can give him the things that we feel he's strong with, which gives us a better chance."
His would-be top receiver, Stevie Johnson, is questionable for Sunday's game after injuring his back against the Browns. On the other side, Bengals cornerback Leon Hall is also questionable after already missing two starts with a balky hamstring.
"I just have to go out and put my best foot forward," Lewis said. "Don't do too much because you've got playmakers around you. But do enough to put us in a good position to get this 'W.'"
Buffalo had won 10 straight against Cincinnati before a 23-20 loss in the most recent meeting in 2011.
This time around, the Bengals are coming off a stifling 13-6 defeat of New England's three-time NFL champion passer Tom Brady, whose streak of 52 consecutive games with a touchdown throw was halted.
He joined Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers as decorated QBs to lose to Cincinnati in 2013. Meanwhile, the Bengals have lost to Cleveland's Brian Hoyer and Chicago's Jay Cutler.
Brady, Roethlisberger and Rodgers were held to a combined 63.2 passer rating. Hoyer and Cutler lit up the Cincinnati defense to the tune of a 99.0 rating. The three wins came in Bengals home games. The two losses were on the road. Sunday's game with Buffalo is on the Bills' home turf in Orchard Park, N.Y.
"When the schedule came out, I think I counted that we played 10 of the last 12 Super Bowl participants," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. "With that comes very good quarterbacks and generally experienced football teams. You just have to be good at what you do. They're going to generally look to play to their strength. We've got to get them off schedule."
The Bengals are seventh in the league in scoring defense, holding foes to an average of 17.4 points. Buffalo, in five games, has averaged 22.4 points -- 19th in the league.
"It's definitely fun to watch that defense," Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton said.
The Bengals have surrendered 23 points in their last two games -- the 13-6 defeat of New England and a 17-6 loss to Cleveland -- while scoring just 19 of their own. In the first three games of 2013, Cincinnati had posted scores of 21 (against Chicago), 20 (against Pittsburgh) and 34 (against Green Bay).
Dalton and Co. are just 25th in the league in scoring, averaging 18.8 points.
The QB and elite wide receiver A.J. Green connected nine times for two touchdowns and 162 yards in Week 1 against the Bears. In four games since, Green has one TD and 199 yards. Dalton did not throw a TD pass against Cleveland or New England.
He's never gone three games without a scoring throw. He's also thrown an interception in three straight games this season, a stretch he's exceeded only once as a pro. As a result, the Bengals are just 10th in the 16-team AFC with a minus-2 turnover ratio.
The Bills, on the other hand, are fifth in the conference at plus-3.
Buffalo had won 10 in a row against Cincinnati until a Week 4 matchup in 2011 that the Bengals won, 23-20. In that game, Dalton hit Green four times for 118 yards, including a long play of 58 yards.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This Cincinnati defense could make things rocky for the incoming Lewis.
After losing to the unknown Hoyer in a loss to Cleveland two weeks ago, the Bengals held Brady to six points and halted his TD pass streak last week. It also won't help Lewis that his No. 1 pass target, Johnson, is having back issues.
Buffalo defensive back Stephon Gilmore is out with a wrist injury and the Bills have been both dinged-up and ineffective in the secondary through five weeks.
That's not a good recipe for a team prepping to face the tandem of Dalton and Green, which could choose this Sunday to get its 2013 mojo.
The Bills have played just well enough to lose close games to New England, the New York Jets and Cleveland through five weeks, and barely well enough to squeak out wins over Carolina and Baltimore.
The Bengals, meanwhile, have more jagged but just as inconsistent. With the thought that their talent level is indeed superior, it looks like another close win here. Perhaps a late score for the win.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bengals 22, Bills 20.
10/10 11:33:20 ET