AFC Championship All-22: How the Chiefs can beat the Bengals

When you visit Patrick Mahomes’ player page on Pro Football Reference, at least two things stand out. First, the man has a LOT of nicknames: Grim Reaper, Showtime, Magic Man, The Musician, Fatrick, The Gunslinger, and Mahomeboy. Second, the Kansas City Chiefs don’t have a losing record against many teams when Mahomes is on the field.

The most glaring example of a team that does seem to have Mr. Mahomes’ number, of course, is the Cincinnati Bengals. Mahomes and the Chiefs knocked Cincinnati around 45-10 in 2018, Mahomes’ first season as an NFL starter and his NFL campaign. Since then, it’s been nothing but disappointment. The Bengals beat Kansas City 34-31 in Week 17 of the 2021 regular season. They beat the Chiefs 27-24 in overtime of the 2021 AFC Championship to advance to Super Bowl LVI. They beat the Chiefs 27-24 in Week 13 of the 2022 season, and they have a chance to make it four in a row (probably by a field goal, if the past is prologue) in Sunday’s AFC Championship rematch.

As a result, the Chiefs are a home underdog in the postseason for the first time in Mahomes’ career.

“Yeah, we’ve obviously lost to this team three times in a row,” Mahomes said this week, when asked about that drought. “And we’ve had great football games against them, but they’ve been able to beat us situationally at the end of games. And so, how can we be better there? We know it’s going to be a close football game. Every team you play in this position is going to be a close football game. But how can we be better situationally that we go out there and that we’re able to execute on third down and the red zone and the end of games in order to win against a good football team?”

If the Chiefs want to avoid having more consecutive losses to the Bengals than Patrick Mahomes has nicknames, they’ll have to accomplish these things on Sunday.

Find ways for Mahomes to win from the pocket.

(Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

Mahomes will have had eight days to recover as much as possible from the high right ankle sprain he suffered in Kansas City’s divisional round win over the Jaguars, but he looked pretty rough in that game after the injury, which would lead you to believe that he won’t be 100 percent on Sunday. That will obviously affect his ability to make designed and second-reaction plays outside the pocket.

“I think we’ll see throughout the week,” Mahomes said Wednesday, when asked whether the injury would affect his footwork. “I haven’t got to go out and practice yet and put myself in those positions. I’ve done limited stuff kind of in a small kind of box of what I can do, but I’ll push it a little bit today and then the next day and then the next day again and see what I can do that [doesn’t] reaggravate the injury, obviously, but push it to see what I’ll be able to do on Sunday.”

Mahomes did have full participation in Thursday’s proactive, and everyone without a Cincinnati address will hoping for the best when the game comes around. The good news for the Chiefs is that Mahomes has just demolished defenses from the pocket this season — he’s completed 391 of 552 passes for 4,598 yards, 1,953 air yards, a league-high 34 touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a passer rating of 109.6.

In Week 13 against the Bengals, Mahomes completed 14 of 22 passes from the pocket for 196 yards, 72 air yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 107.4. Mahomes’ first pass from the pocket showed an interesting offensive design that might also help to mitigate his struggles against Cincinnati’s light rush/heavy drop defenses. This was a screen pass to running back Isiah Pacheco in which Kansas City ran switch releases to either side of the field, which took the Bengals’ defense over the top, and left too few defenders to shut that screen down. Result: a 16-yard gain on second-and-6.

The Bengals are too smart to think that they can dominate Mahomes from the pocket. What they’ll obviously want to do is to force Mahomes from that pocket as much as possible, and see how he adjusts.

And speaking of adjustments, here’s the biggest one.

Adjust to Lou Anarumo's adjustments.

(Syndication: The Enquirer)

During the ManningCast telecast of the Cowboys’ 31.14 wild-card win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Peyton Manning blew the lid right off the concept of halftime adjustments in a game.

“I don’t know if I ever made a halftime adjustment during my entire 18-year career,” Manning said. “I think that’s the biggest myth in football, the halftime adjustments, right? You go in, you use the restroom, you eat a couple of oranges, then the head coach says, ‘All right, let’s go!’”

Whatever Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo did at halftime of his team’s last three games against the Chiefs, it was a lot more than hitting the head and upping one’s Vitamin C intake. This has shown up sharply in Patrick Mahomes splits’ in the first halves of those games, and how things have devolved in the second halves and in overtime.

Mahomes in the first halves: 43 completions in 57 attempts (75.4%) for 503 yards (8.8 yards per attempt), 267 air yards (4.7 yards per attempt), six touchdowns, no interceptions, one sack, 19 pressures, and a passer rating of 136.8.

Mahomes in the second halves/OT: 25 completions in 44 attempts (56.8%) for 253 yards (5.8 yards per attempt), 129 air yards (2.9 air yards per attempt), no touchdowns,  two interceptions, five sacks, 20 pressures, and a passer rating of 54.5.

And the thing is, Anarumo hasn’t leaned on one specific adjustment throughout. We all know about his strategy in the second half and overtime of the 2021 AFC Championship, when he rushed three and dropped eight at a much higher rate (with some interesting coverage switches) as the game went along. As we’ll detail in a minute, three-man rushes worked when Anarumo sent them again this season. But in Week 13, it was much more about putting as many guys on Travis Kelce as the law allowed.

What we do know is that in the second halves of face-offs with Mr. Anarumo, Mr. Mahomes becomes a very unhappy individual.

“Their defense changes up a lot of different coverages,” Mahomes said after that Week 13 loss. “They did a good job trying to take Travis away as much as possible, and that’s why you saw a lot of the other guys making catches. I feel like we executed at a very high level, aside from that one three-and-out drive. It wasn’t high enough because we didn’t win. We’ve just got to go back and look at the film, and just try to get better from this game.”

What might the Bengals do to Mahomes this time around? You never know, which is the problem. Since Mahomes probably won’t be as mobile, Anarumo might try to heat things up in the pocket with intelligent blitzes; he did a marvelous job of deploying cornerback Mike Hilton as a “creeper” blitzer in Cincinnati’s divisional round win over the Bills. In any event, the Chiefs’ coaching staff will need to have extra arrows in their quivers for the second half of this AFC Championship game if they want to avoid getting out-thought and out-fought by Uncle Lou once more.

Beat the Bengals' three-man rush.

(Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports)

This is not something Mahomes has been able to do to date. In the Week 13 loss to Cincinnati, Mahomes went against a three-man rush on seven plays. He ran four times for 11 yards, and failed to complete a pass on three attempts. This included an ineligible downfield pass penalty on a throw to receiver Justin Watson with 12:10 left in the first half.

If Mahomes employs pocket movement against those three-man rushes, and he’s not seeing ghosts out there when they happen, the Chiefs can reverse a narrative that has been true to this point… for the most part.

Bracket Ja'Marr Chase, because to do anything else is insane.

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The first time Chase played against the Chiefs, it was that 34-31 Cincinnati win in Week 16 of the 2021 season. And in that game, Chase caught 11 passes on 12 targets for 266 yards and three touchdowns. If you don’t try SOMETHING to keep Chase out of single coverage, especially to the outside when he’s the front-side or back-side iso receiver, your defense is going to hate life.

Chae’s one semi-explosive catch in the AFC Championship was this 22-yard play with 6:25 left in the third quarter. This was a broken play saved by Joe Burrow’s ungodly pocket movement (which is even more ungodly now than it was last season), and watch how safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Charvarius Ward were ceding the catch to prevent the leaks up top.

The negative alternative to this approach? This 40-yard catch, where Chase put Williams in the dryer pretty quickly.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire