Chiefs vs. Bengals: 4 things to watch and a prediction

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The Cincinnati Bengals have a dance with the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday that will decide much about their future.

Those Chiefs are the AFC’s top seed. Beat them, and the AFC North belongs to the Bengals, as does a playoff berth. Lose, and Week 18 against Cleveland becomes a must-win game — while the focus slowly starts to shift to other things like the draft.

It’s no easy task — but it is winnable. Here are some things to watch.

Tight end

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

What feels like a decade or more’s worth of struggles against tight ends continued for the Bengals last week, even in a 20-point win over Baltimore. Mark Andrews caught eight passes for 125 yards and a score. Now the Bengals have to hope the returns of names like Logan Wilson can help slow down future Hall of Famer Travis Kelce. He’s the game’s best and can outright control this one every single drive, whether it’s making big plays or commanding coverage that frees up the likes of Tyreek Hill.

WR battle

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of Hill, whether the Bengals can contain one of the game’s most explosive wideouts is worth asking. Trae Waynes is unavailable once again, so Chidobe Awuize and the overperforming(?) Eli Apple will have to be up to task. Hill’s caught 104 passes for 1,197 yards and nine scores this year.

On the other side, Bengals fans know all too well how good the trio of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd is. The Chiefs allow 245.7 passing yards per game, the league’s eighth-worst mark, but only let up 20.4 points per game (fifth-best). If Chase and Co. can make big splash plays, they might be able to break the proverbial dam.

Pass protection

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs are much better at rushing the passer than most teams the Bengals have encountered as of late. They’ve generated 159 pressures this year with a 26.5 pressure percentage (seventh-best). Chris Jones (seven sacks) is the monster in the middle who makes it all work. Blitzing Burrow doesn’t generally work out, but the Chiefs front seven has the ability to pressure a so-so Bengals line without bringing extra, which could cause problems.

Timing

Syndication: The Enquirer

The Bengals have had serious problems with play-calling and execution this year leading to third-and-longs. It has crushed drives, derailed momentum and left points on the board. That’s not going to work against an offense as stacked as this Patrick Mahomes-led unit. Early-down issues puts Burrow in a tough spot and asks him to extend plays and play hero-ball, which could cause disaster.

The timing thing is true for Mahomes too. He threw a ton of picks over the first half of the season while the team struggled because of bad luck, drops, flags and iffy play-calling against defenses that had all offseason to adjust. That’s stopped during his team’s eight-game winning streak. If the Bengals can encourage some of those mistakes again, they can win.

Prediction: Chiefs 30, Bengals 27

Syndication: The Enquirer

This is the best offense the Bengals have faced since early December when Justin Herbert came to visit (a 41-22 loss). While they’re a solid unit defensively, nobody in the league can slow Kelce, let alone a team that struggles with the position. Burrow’s going to engage in some hero-ball that can keep things close, but the coaching-experience factor in Zac Taylor vs. Andy Reid might be what ultimately decides this one.

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