Let’s not waste time with a long preamble: it’s Championship Sunday in the NFL. In the AFC Championship, the No. 1 and AFC West Champion Kansas City Chiefs will host the No. 1 seed. 3 and champion of the AFC North Cincinnati Bengals.
These two teams met earlier this season, as well as in last year’s championship game. Cincinnati won both contests, but the Chiefs are once again working with home field advantage. Before we dive into the matchup, here’s a look at how you can watch the match.
How to watch
Date: Sunday January 29 | Weather: 6:30 PM ETPosition: GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Missouri)TV: CBS | Flow: Paramount+ (click here)Chance: Chapters -1.5, O/U 48
When the Bengals have the ball
Last week, the big story in the Bengals’ game against the Buffalo Bills was the offensive line. How would the group hold up in the face of Joe Burrow while losing three starters and counting on the likes of Jackson Carman, Hakeem Adeniji and Max Scharping? As it turned out, it held up well.
Burrow was pressured on only 31.6% of his dropbacks, according to Tru Media, a well below average rate. The Bengals ball carriers averaged an impressive 1.94 yards per carry before contact, a significant improvement over the 1.26 per carry they averaged during the regular season. Not only did Buffalo’s defensive line not dominate the game; was widely dominated. Cincinnati controlled the line of scrimmage from the jump.
Now, the question becomes whether the offensive line can do it again. The Chiefs actually pressured opposing quarterbacks at a higher rate (35.7%) during the regular season than the Bills (33.7%). And since Buffalo was without Von Miller last week, the Chiefs also have a higher level individual threat (Chris Jones) than any Bills brought to the table a week ago. There is good and bad news for Bangladeshis on that front. The beauty is that the two remaining starters down the offensive line (Ted Karras and Cordell Volson) both play inside, where Jones does his job. The bad news is that Scharping also plays inside and the Chiefs can line up Jones wherever they want to generate advantageous matchups.
The real way the Bengals can neutralize the run, though, is through Burrow. Against Buffalo, Burrow averaged the ball out in 2.57 seconds, according to Tru Media, which is right in line with his season average of 2.55 seconds per pitch. Only Tom Brady (2.33 seconds) has cleared the ball faster this season, and only Brady has released a greater share of his pitches (55.3%) within 2.5 seconds of the snap than Burrow (55.3 seconds). 0%). Burrow’s superpower is his ability to quickly decide where he’s going with the ball and get it out of hand when the situation calls for it, but he also has the extended playability that the league’s other superstar quarterbacks bring to the table. .
It helps that you have arguably the best gun picture in the league – or at least in its conference – to choose from. Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins give him two #1 alpha receivers. 1, each of which may both make contested catches and create yardage after the catch. The chase is nearly impossible to break down with the first tackler, and the Bengals capitalize on it by running the ball to him across screens and crosses so he can attack the defenders with a head of steam. In the first meeting between these two teams, the Chiefs too often left their inexperienced corners on an island with Chase or Higgins on the outside, and Burrow repeatedly made them pay. This time Steve Spagnuolo needs a different plan of attack.
It will be interesting to see if the Chiefs bring L’Jarius Sneed back to the outfield and put Trent McDuffie back in the slot, after switching those positions last week against the Jaguars. Jacksonville’s top receiving threat was Christian Kirk, so the Chiefs moved Sneed back into the slot. The main threats to Cincinnati remain Chase and Higgins, not Tyler Boyd, so it might make sense to put Sneed back on the perimeter and allow McDuffie to try and physically play against Boyd on the inside. Spagnuolo should still be careful to give Sneed and Jaylen Watson appropriate help, or Burrow will work aggressively in one-on-one matches and trust his boys to win the ball in the air. Being able to send enough bodies after Burrow to generate pressure while also maintaining enough cover to ensure they don’t get smoked outside is going to be a tough balance.
The Bengals got a lot better at handling the ball once they got away from the way they wanted to run the ball earlier in the season. They were an under-center, out-of-court team at first, and it was extremely vanilla. They switched to an almost exclusively rifle offense earlier in the year, and this allowed them to get a little more unpredictability into their rushing attack. Kansas City finished a respectable 15th in DVOA in rushing defense this season, according to Football Outsiders, so this isn’t one of those units where you can just run the ball down their throat if you want, as has occasionally been the case in past seasons. . Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine certainly have their roles to play here, but the Bengals are best doing what they do best: letting Burrow control the game by playing point guard from the pocket.
When the Chiefs have the ball
Well, this all really boils down to one question: Is Patrick Mahomes sane enough to sound like Patrick Mahomes? Honestly, I have no idea, and I think anyone (aside from maybe the chiefs team doctors) who tells you they know with any degree of certainty is lying.
So, let’s try to figure out what we know:
- We know Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo will once again have a game plan tailored to take on Mahomes and the Chiefs’ passing attack.
- We know the game plan will likely differ at least a bit from what we saw in Week 13, which itself differed a bit from what we saw in last year’s AFC title game.
- We know Kansas City’s passing game is flowing through Travis Kelce, and the Bengals will likely be looking to take that away by using Tre Flowers to physically get close to the line of scrimmage and sending other covering defenders further down the field.
- We know the Chiefs reengineered their offense last offseason to counter the type of defenses the Bengals and other teams used against them last year, making players fit into specific roles to take their fast game, direct downhill game and run to a different level.
- We know all of these moves have largely worked, with Mahomes leading the NFL in EPA in dropbacks, Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon giving them their most versatile backfield in years, and the Chiefs having arguably their best offensive season since Mahomes won (his first) MVP award in 2018.
- We know that Bengalis know all these things, and that the chiefs know they know, and that Bengalis know that the chiefs know they know, and so on.
If Mahomes is healthy, he should be trusted to figure things out. Also in the loss to Cincinnati earlier this season, Mahomes completed 16 of 27 passes for 223 yards (8.2 per attempt) and a touchdown, while also adding a score on the ground. Were it not for a fumble by Kelce, we might talk about that game very differently. After all, it’s not like Mahomes has been shut down entirely. Kansas City scored on four of its first six drives, and one of those drives was running out of time in the first half with two runs from deep in their own territory. So out of five possessions, they totaled 24 points. Then Kelce fumbled, Cincy scored, Harrison Butker missed a game-tying field goal, and the rest is the mayor of Cincinnati claiming Burrow is Mahomes’ father, or something like that. (If anything, it should be Anarumo is Mahomes’ father, but I digress.)
In that game though, the Bengals made Mahomes incredibly patient. It took him an average of 3.36 seconds before passing the ball, the seventh-longest time to pitch of his 91 career games. (Two of the six games he took the longest in were the AFC title loss to Cincinnati last year and the Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers the year before.) Part of the reason he still managed to find the success was that he could maneuver in the pocket with his mobility, and he used that mobility to create great plays on the court. The fast-playing stuff the Chiefs have been looking to add back to their offense this season was largely unavailable.
Whether he’s available this week will depend on whether Anarumo decides Mahomes’ injury means he should pressure and make him try to move, or that he shouldn’t pressure because Mahomes can’t move. If Cincy sends pressure, Mahomes can carve the defense out of his pocket, like he did last week against the Jaguars. The Bengals have blitzed very rarely these past two games against the Chiefs, though, and they’re not a heavy blitz team anyway. It seems unlikely that Anarumo will suddenly change course on this one. But if the Bengals don’t send extra bodies, the wall the Chiefs have built in front of Mahomes these last two years is also likely to hold up and give him time to find the free man down the field.
I expect Kansas City will be in the shotgun more often than not so Mahomes doesn’t have to move around too much to ease the running game or get into play-action passing concepts, which means it should be a heavier game for McKinnon than for Pacheco. McKinnon is an ace pass protector and has a little more game juice thanks to his agility, but Pacheco has the ability to go downhill and punish the Bengals for playing light boxes. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Chiefs try to get their rushing game started early so the Bengals have to sneak up and allow more downfield shots.