AFC championship game: Rematch is duel between Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes
They are, arguably, the two best quarterbacks in the NFL, Super Bowl-tested and in their mid-20s.
Patrick Mahomes has led the Kansas City Chiefs to two Super Bowls, one championship and five consecutive AFC championship games.
Joe Burrow led the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl last season, and has his team primed for a possible return.
So Mahomes and Burrow will be the key players on Sunday when the Chiefs play host to the Bengals in the AFC championship game at Arrowhead Stadium.
Or, as Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton dubbed it, “Burrowhead.”
That’s the moniker Hilton gave the venue based on the Bengals’ recent success against the Chiefs.
The Bengals, under coach Zac Taylor, have defeated the Chiefs and coach Andy Reid three games in a row. That includes a come-from-behind 27-24 overtime victory in last season’s championship game, and a 27-24 victory this season on Dec. 4 in Cincinnati.
That success, and a right ankle injury suffered by Mahomes in last week’s divisional-round victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, made the Bengals the early favorite by oddsmakers.
Burrow, 26, is supremely confident, but he did not sound entirely sold on the favorite status.
“We know what team we’re playing — a team that’s been to this game the last five seasons, and they’ve all been in that stadium,” Burrow told reporters this week. “So, to me, they’re still the team to beat, and we’re coming for them.”
The Chiefs have won six games in a row since their December loss to the Bengals. Mahomes, who passed for a league-best 5,250 yards and 41 touchdowns during the regular season, left the Jan. 21 divisional-round game against the Jaguars after suffering the ankle sprain. He returned and finished 22-of-30 passing for 195 yards and two touchdowns in the 27-20 victory.
Mahomes, 27, leads an offense that features tight end Travis Kelce — who had 14 catches against the Jaguars — and receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Kadarius Toney. Running back Isiah Pacheco is the top rusher.
How the ankle issue affects Mahomes’ mobility will not be evident until he is forced to evade the pass rush. That puts extra pressure on the offensive line to control ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard, the Bengals' leaders in sacks.
Mahomes, a two-time All-Pro, is looking forward to the challenge as the Chiefs attempt to advance to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons.
“If you’re not fired up to play a team that beat you three times in a row and in the AFC championship game,” he told reporters this week, “then you’re not going to be fired up for any game.”
Burrow is playing even better than last season, when he had his team on the brink of defeating the Rams in the Super Bowl.
This season, he passed for 4,475 yards and 35 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions.
The Bengals, winners of 10 games in a row, feature perhaps the NFL’s top receiving corps in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Tight end Hayden Hurst, receiver Trenton Irwin and running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are other targets.
Burrow completed 23 of 36 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns in last Sunday’s 27-10 victory over the Buffalo Bills while Mixon rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Burrow will be working against a Chiefs defense that includes rookie cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Jaylen Watson.
Chiefs All-Pro tackle Chris Jones and veteran end Frank Clark will lead the rush against Burrow.
“He’s got that Peyton Manning in him,” Clark told reporters, adding, “He knows how to read safeties and he knows how to read the defense. … When you’re a defense that can’t really disguise the coverage or disguise things, he’s going to pick you apart every time.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo put it another way when describing Burrow’s ability to maintain his poise and make plays.
“The word I come up with is nifty,” he said. “He never panics in the pocket. It feels like he’s got six eyeballs around his head.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.