How Chiefs can beat Burrow’s Bengals in AFC Championship Game, advance to Super Bowl
It doesn’t get bigger than this: The Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals Sunday evening in the AFC Championship Game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium, with the winner advancing to Super Bowl LVII.
Sunday marks the 33rd time, including the postseason, that these two AFC powers have played each other. The Bengals hold an 18-14 edge in the all-time series and have beaten the Chiefs in the past three meetings.
The Bengals have seemed to have Andy Reid’s number since he became the Chiefs’ head coach in 2013. One of their victories came in last season’s AFC Championship Game.
From opposing quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow to top targets Travis Kelce and Ja’Marr Chase or defensive players like Chris Jones and Trey Hendrickson, Sunday’s game promises star power and All-Pro talent.
“I’d just tell you they’re a real good football team,” Reid said. “They don’t have a lot of weaknesses on either side of the ball or special teams, so that part hasn’t changed from the first time we played them. They’re good, or they wouldn’t be here at this round ...”
Here are four areas to monitor for the Chiefs, who are seeking to reach the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons.
Mahomes’ right ankle will be watched closely not just by the Chiefs, but the entire Bengals defense.
The Chiefs’ All-Pro quarterback can do some damage in the pocket. But he is arguably at his best when he improvises with his legs, and an overwhelming number of his creative and highlight-worthy throws have come while he’s on the move.
Go back to Week 14 for his no-look touchdown pass to running back Jerick McKinnon against the Denver Broncos. Or what about that spinning touchdown pass against the Buccaneers in Week 4? Both of those passes occurred while a fully healthy Mahomes was scrambling to his right near the sideline.
With his right ankle heavily taped, Mahomes practiced Wednesday and Thursday. Coming less than a week after his high-ankle sprain against Jacksonville in the AFC Divisional Round, that’s a good indicator of his health.
But if his mobility is limited against the Bengals, it will be up the Chiefs’ offensive line, especially tackles Orlando Brown Jr. and Andrew Wylie, to keep the pocket clean for Mahomes.
Mahomes isn’t overly concerned, noting how his O-line protection rose to the challenge against the Jaguars.
“I think you saw in the second half of this last game that they stepped up and did a great job of protecting me and I was able to throw the ball from within the pocket,” he said. “And I’m sure they’ll be ready to go, but ... it’s a great (Cincy) defensive line, so it’ll be a great challenge for them.”
If given time in the pocket, Mahomes could have a favorable day against a beatable Bengals pass defense, which finished the regular season ranked 23rd in the league.
GO AFTER BURROW
Burrow can pass with the best of them. His 4,475 regular-season yards were fifth-most in the league and his 35 TD passes tied for second.
His top targets are wide receivers Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and tight end Hayden Hurst. Chase in particular has emerged as one of the NFL’s elite at his position, and his production has carried into the postseason: He’s accumulated 513 receiving yards in six career playoff games.
Burrow can pick apart a defense, but there’s a weakness here for the Chiefs to exploit: Opponents sacked him 41 times during the regular season. That’s fourth-most in the league.
The Chiefs’ primary pass rushers — Chris Jones, Frank Clark, George Karlaftis and Carlos Dunlap — must make themselves factors in Sunday’s game.
“This game,” linebacker Nick Bolton said, “we’ve just got to communicate ... and just execute the game plan. We’ve just got to tackle out in space.”
CONTAIN DOUBLE-TROUBLE BACKFIELD
The Chiefs have faced their share of tough running backs and met the challenge this season, ranking eighth in the league against the run (107.2 yards allowed per game).
KC’s stout run defense must rise to the occasion again because Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are a formidable one-two punch. Mixon missed Week 13’s game against the Chiefs (concussion protocol), but he’s the Bengals’ leading rusher, totaling 1,255 offensive yards (814 rushing) and nine touchdowns in 14 games.
At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Mixon’s a load. But the Chiefs need to mindful of Perine, too. The 5-foot-11, 240-pound Perine started in place of Mixon in Week 13 and gouged the Chiefs with 155 total yards (106 rushing). And in last season’s AFC Championship Game, Perine had 43 yards receiving and a touchdown on three catches.
Mixon might be Cincinnati’s lead rusher, but Perine is just as dangerous.
GET OVER THE HUMP
The Chiefs held leads in their past three games against the Bengals, including double-digit advantages in both matchups last season, but couldn’t keep them.
In Week 13, the Chiefs overcame a 14-3 deficit to take a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter. Then the Bengals scored 10 straight in the final period.
Last season, the Chiefs held a 28-17 halftime lead before losing 34-31. And few in Kansas City will forget how they blew a 21-3 lead against the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game before losing 27-24 in overtime.
Are the Bengals living rent-free inside the Chiefs’ heads? Probably not, but the Chiefs need to prove it Sunday.