Key players and storylines to watch in Bengals vs. Chiefs AFC title game

It’s yet another date between the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs, this time in the AFC title game.

In a rivalry that is quickly starting to feel like a divisional one, complete with “Burrowhead” trash talk and bulletin-board comments from Chiefs defenders, Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes once again take center stage.

Yet in this one, Mahomes enters with an ankle injury suffered in the divisional round and Burrow enters with a 3-0 mark in prior matchups so far.

While much of this game will hinge on lessons learned from those past encounters, the sprinkles of innovation and adaptation and a few x-factors will decide which team goes to the Super Bowl.

The ankle and Cincinnati's response

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All the attention has centered on the injured ankle of Patrick Mahomes. How is it really? Will he be able to plant well on that right foot and make throws all over the field? What about scramble and navigate pockets? Those classic off-platform and off-script throws at wild angles?

Maybe more importantly, what about Lou Anarumo? Is he going to bring extra heat early to test it out? Will that get the Bengals burnt? Or do they just do the usual and drop eight, which has confused Mahomes in the past?

Bengals RBs and the middle of the field

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Yes, Chiefs running backs are a big focus too. But the bigger thing here is the middle of the field for the Cincinnati offense. The Bengals absolutely abused Chiefs linebackers Willie Gay and Nick Bolton in coverage during the regular season meeting. With teams like the Chiefs dropping so far to prevent the big play to wideouts, running backs and tight ends tend to go wild over the middle. A short passing game like that even emulates the running game well. And in this instance, it can make a Bengals offensive line starting three backups a non-factor. Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine and tight ends need to win their matchups in space underneath and break a few tackles.

Hayden Hurst and Joe Mixon

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Hurst and Mixon — two guys who (technically) missed the regular season win over the Chiefs. In Mixon’s place, Perine ran for 106 yards on an average of five yards per carry and caught six passes for 49 yards. Hurst caught two passes before leaving early. They’ll both be major parts of the gameplan on Sunday and could swing the game. Hurst, notably, went limited during Thursday’s practice with what was listed as a calf injury.

The OL vs. Chris Jones

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Chris Jones is a game-breaking player. It hasn’t always shown against the Bengals, but the threat is always there. And now the Bengals line will start three backups. Rookie Cordell Volson has been steady at left guard and will need to be again. Backup right guard Max Scharping needs to have a strong game. And starting center Ted Karras, who gutted through a knee injury in Buffalo, needs to be his usual self. Success in the running game and short passing game will negate Jones if successful too, but the line needs to have a better-than-expected showing for the second week in a row.

Travis Kelce

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For whatever reason, the Jags just kept letting Kelce break free last week and it burned them. But the Bengals limited him to four catches for 56 yards in the regular season and they will need a similar showing to stand a chance. Tight-end stopper Tre Flowers sounds like he’s good to go, so that’s a huge thing after he was battling an injury. First-rounder Dax Hill gets looks in this area too, as will linebackers. The likely strategy is to double Kelce and force slower-developing routes to receivers to win the game for the Chiefs offense.

Isiah Pacheco and 13 personnel

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Isiah Pacheco has been on a roll lately and hit the Bengals for 67 yards and a score on the ground (4.7 average) in Week 13. With Mahomes hurting, the Chiefs will probably rely on 13 personnel, meaning Kelce as a wideout of sorts in heavy packages. That could force the Bengals away from dropping eight into coverage because they need more linebackers on the field to stop the run. The Chiefs have been downright deadly in 13 personnel, so the Bengals will need to have a counter ready.

Joe Burrow

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Who else? Burrow’s taken another stunning step in his development, at times just playing with his food as he manipulates defenders with his eyes and attacks defenses that used to fluster him with ease. He rarely throws interceptable passes, always seems to make the right read and is oddly accurate. He’s taking few sacks intentionally, looking for the big splash less and moving the ball more efficiently — he’s even dramatically boosted the number of scramble looks for big gains and chain-movers.

So yes, Burrow will look for a few shots to Ja’Marr Chase, especially when he’s blitzed. But he’ll also take the short stuff and make the Chiefs pay for decisions. As long as he’s analyzing what the Chiefs are doing on the fly well again, he can overcome the line and everything else, just as he did in Buffalo.

The mental edge

The above says it all. The Bengals are 3-0 with Burrow against the Chiefs over the last two seasons. Burrow already has more road playoff wins than Peyton Manning. There’s just something to be said for how calm, cool and collected the Bengals are in any venue, including Arrowhead. That enables proper execution of the gameplan and execution of adjustments. Rest assured Chiefs players know the record and that they don’t have this edge, too. It’s not some non-factor wiped out by crowd noise, potentially giving the Bengals an edge away from home.

Story originally appeared on Bengals Wire