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Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship Game Market Movers: The Kansas City Bulls and Bears

It’s (almost) obvious that Sunday’s matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship is one of the biggest, most consequential (and least certain) games of the Patrick Mahomes era.

If Kansas City wins, everything is on the table. Records can be broken. The AFC domain can be established. A case can be made for a potential dynasty. Multiple Hall of Fame legacies could be cemented.

And oh, yeah… a win would also shut down some of the talk about (and by) these Bengals and their cocky quarterback Joe Burrow.

Losing this game, however, would be a huge setback to all of those goals, not to mention an abrupt end to a Chiefs season that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

But a win will require overcoming a team that has been able to notch wins in three consecutive games, the worst of which was last season’s AFC title game on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. What will be different this time?

Here are just some of the garments that could make the difference.


Kadarius Toney Wide Receiver: Before last Saturday’s Divisional Round game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, we talked about how the Chiefs’ new wideout could be the team’s top receiver in the playoffs and possibly in the future. He responded by leading Kansas City wide receivers in goals (7), receptions (5) and yards (36) – and adding a 14-yard rush – to give just a taste of his versatility and instability in the 27-20 win squad the jaguars. Toney was not on the field for the Week 13 matchup between these two teams in December, but he could be one of the biggest keys to Sunday’s game. Mahomes will need someone who can open up for quick passing, someone who can also throw the boys into space for extra yards. Toney could be just the threat the Kansas City offense needs to counter anything the Cincinnati defense might throw at them. Don’t be surprised if he once again leads the team in the targets and if some of them are deep. Toney is only scratching the surface of what he can do.

The Chiefs Offensive Line: After suffering a sprained ankle on Saturday, quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ mobility will be limited; he probably he will stay in the pocket more often than we usually see. And it’s possible that the Chiefs are preparing to throw the ball more often than in their previous matchup against the Bengals. Both of these plans will rely on the big shots up front. When Mahomes was injured in the first quarter of Saturday’s game, the line managed to keep him from being sacked and led the way for 144 rushing yards on 4.8 yards per carry. In fact, Kansas City has not allowed more than two sacks in a game since Week 9 against the Tennessee Titans. In their last meeting with Cincinnati, the Chiefs handled the ball well (25 carries for 138 yards and two scores). They’ll need that – and more – this time around. I’m optimistic about the Chiefs’ offensive front and their ability to win against the Bengals. If they deliver, they could very well stamp the ticket to Glendale, Arizona in February.

Safety Juan Thornhill: Kansas City’s defensemen may be the most improved bunch on this team. This is true not only with respect to 2021, but also to the beginning of this season. Rookie corners are going well and the team is finding the right combinations of players in the back end. The safeties start making more plays on the ball. This allows defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to call more creative blitzing and covering. In Sunday’s game, the entire squad (and staff) will be challenged in new ways. Cincinnati’s big, fast catchers generally can’t be defended one-on-one. Even when there’s good coverage, Burrow has a way of getting the ball to the perfect spot for them quickly. It will then be up to the safeties, notably Thornhill, to help disrupt downstream passes whilst being available to tackle short of sticks. Against Jacksonville, Thornhill had some spectacular pass breakups that helped erase big plays. For the Chiefs to contain the Bengals’ passing game — and potentially steal a possession by forcing a turnover — he’ll need to be in top form.

Other trends in the right direction: safety Bryan Cook, running back Isiah Pacheco, tight end Travis Kelce, defensive tackle Chris Jones, defensive end Frank Clark, cornerback Jaylen Watson and quarterback Chad Henne.


Linebackers Willie Gay, Jr. and Nick Bolton: The Bengals love to attack in the middle of the field against the Chiefs, where the linebackers and safeties are forced into situations of coverage that could be bad games for them. Kansas City’s top two linebackers have been inconsistent in coverage this season. At times, both were playmakers — tipping passes and knocking down big interceptions — but too often they were left guessing (and exploiting) in the midfield. Longer-term, we’re still optimistic about these guys, but this week’s meeting is tough; they will be tested. Can they surprise us?

Kansas City Kick Coverage Unit: In the Divisional Round, Jacksonville’s Jamal Agnew burned coverage by special teams coordinator Dave Toub for a 63-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown drive, plus a 42-yard return that required placekicker Harrison Butker to make a desperate tackle to avoid a touchdown return. So general manager Brett Veach waived Chris Lammons, one of the Chiefs’ best special teams players, with the probable hope that he would cancel the waivers and return to the practice squad. Unfortunately, Cincinnati has reclaimed Lammons, ensuring he won’t be able to play for either team on Sunday or in the Super Bowl. We have to hope that against Cincinnati Toub has a plan to close some back lanes or put every kickoff outside the end zone. It will be a close game and the Kansas City defense has struggled to stop teams with short pitch. Every meter of position on the pitch will count.

Other trends in the wrong direction: wide receivers Skyy Moore and Marquez Valdes-Scantling and cornerback Joshua Williams.

Value Pick (Sleeper): JuJu Smith-Schuster wide receiver

It might seem really strange to see the #1 wide receiver. 1 on the sleeper roster. Unfortunately, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s last substantial game was against the Houston Texans in Week 14, in which he had 10 catches for 88 yards, but also lost a fumble. His last 100-yard dash game was in week 7 against the San Francisco 49ers. He is averaging 28 yards per game in his last four games, with a season-high of only three catches. So the best wide receiver on the team is a bit of a forgotten man, but this matchup against Cincinnati could bring him back into the spotlight. Mahomes will need reliable catch receivers in the short and intermediate portions of the field that can make difficult catches in traffic; he’ll need someone to move the chains when the Bengals try to take Kelce away. Smith-Schuster may just go big, reminding everyone why he was in the pace for more than 1,000 yards before the Week 10 concussion. If the Chiefs make it back to the Super Bowl, they will be by getting great performances from their receivers, not just upstart Toney, but also resolute Smith-Schuster.

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