CINCINNATI (AP) — First place in the AFC East. A record that's tied for second-best in the NFL. A defense that's stingier than any other in Bills history so far.
It's been quite a start for Buffalo, which heads to Cincinnati to face a team that can bring the Bills back to earth or land with a thud of its own.
The Bills (3-1) need another shutdown performance from their defense Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium to show they're more than a one-month wonder. Cincinnati (1-3) is showing signs of getting its act together under a new offensive coordinator.
The Bengals need this one far more desperately.
Two teams — the Dolphins and the Giants — started 2-3 last season and reached the playoffs. A victory Sunday would give the Bengals hope of climbing out of their early hole, though there's no room for error. A loss would send them into their bye week knowing they're pretty much finished.
"We need to find a way to win this one," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "This one is important."
For the Bills, a win on the road against a desperate team would provide evidence than they're more than an early blip in the long NFL season. Many fans are still wondering: Why are these guys in first place? And how did their defense get to be so good overnight?
"We're, like you said, kind of the motley crew," defensive end Eddie Yarbrough said. "We definitely embrace that. And hey, some of us are the guys that nobody wanted, but we're making statements and we're out here to prove people wrong, so (we're) excited for the opportunity."
Buffalo's offense hasn't done much, failing to gain 300 yards in any of the past three games. A redesigned defense has made the difference. Sean McDermott became head coach after six seasons as Carolina's defensive coordinator and switched from Rex Ryan's 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment.
It's working beautifully. The Bills have held their first four opponents to 17 points or fewer for the first time in their history. With a victory Sunday, McDermott would become the first coach in team history to win four of his first five games.
Some things to watch at Paul Brown Stadium:
The Bengals and Bills are common foes, playing for the third straight season and the fourth time in the past five. They're also bookends in NFL lore for postseason futility. Buffalo has failed to reach the playoffs 17 straight seasons, the longest active streak among North America's four major pro sports. Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the sixth-longest drought in NFL history.
LeSean McCoy ran for 110 yards in the Bills' season-opening win over the Jets, but has been held to 9, 21 and 76 yards rushing in the past three. Since 2010, McCoy leads the NFL with 34 100-yard rushing games. The Bills have been using play-action fakes to McCoy with success, but haven't been able to get the running game together.
"Getting Shady going is definitely something that we are going to continue to be persistent about," quarterback Tyrod Taylor said.
ALSO RUNNING IN PLACE
While the Bengals' passing game took a major upturn when Bill Lazor was promoted to offensive coordinator — Dalton threw four touchdown passes against Cleveland — their running game remains stuck. They're averaging only 3.3 yards per carry and will make the running game their next point of emphasis.
"We could run it 70 times a game," coach Marvin Lewis said. "I'd be happy with that."
DEPLETED BUFFALO OFFENSE
While the Bills' defense leads the NFL by allowing only 13.5 points per game, the Bengals rank third at 16.8 points allowed per game. And Buffalo will be missing top receiver Jordan Matthews for several weeks because of a broken right thumb. The Bills' passing game ranks second-to-last in the league, and they have yet to score in the first quarter of a game.
"Definitely something that we have to be better at, coming out and starting faster, getting those points on the board," Taylor said. "It's been limited possessions a couple of those games, but we have to be better at that."
Cincinnati's offensive line struggled in the first two games with Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher starting at tackle. Veteran Andre Smith has been moved into an rotation at tackle — he shares plays on both sides of the line during games — and the blocking has improved enough that Cincinnati plans to stick with the unusual arrangement.