The Kansas City Chiefs avenged their AFC championship loss a year ago and finally got into the win column against Joe Burrow and the Bengals, defeating Cincinnati 23-20 in Sunday’s conference title game to advance to Super Bowl LVII.
Harrison Butker was able to kick the game-winning 45-yard field goal after Patrick Mahomes and the offense moved the ball 39 yards down the field with under 30 seconds left in regulation. The key play on that drive came on a third-and-4 situation from the Cincinnati 47-yard line. Mahomes scrambled up the right side of the field for five yards and was hit out of bounds, which resulted in an unnecessary roughness penalty to put them in range of Butker and send them to the Super Bowl.
This game was truly a story of two halves, with the first being mostly owned by Kansas City. The Bengals got off to an unusually slow start, particularly in the first quarter when they posted zero total yards of offense. Meanwhile, the Chiefs moved the ball well and jumped out to a 13–6 lead thanks in large part to a 14-yard Travis Kelce touchdown run late in the second quarter. However, Cincinnati showed some signs of life in the closing minutes of that first half, moving 90 yards in just over two minutes to boot a field goal before halftime to cut the lead on a touchdown.
They would knot the game at 13 on their first drive of the second half, and that would set up two back-and-forth quarterfinals between these two rivals. Mahomes and the Chiefs offense answered that Cincy score with their own 11-play, 77-yard touchdown run to retake the lead. A Mahomes fumble on their next drive, however, breathed more life into the Bengals, who would tie the game at 20 on a drive featuring a monumental conversation on fourth and sixth by Joe Burrow with Ja’Marr Chase. That score sat at 20 for most of the fourth quarter until the Kansas City defense was able to force a punt with under a minute in regulation, and the offense took care of the rest to clinch the place in the Super Bowl.
Mahomes went 29 of 43 passing for 326 yards and two touchdowns. His go-to goal on the night was Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who hit six of his eight targets for 116 yards and a touchdown. On the other end, Burrow completed 26 of 41 for 270 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also added 30 yards on the ground. Tee Higgins was the most productive skill position player for Cincinnati, tallying six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
For a more detailed look at how this game played out, check out our highlights below.
Because the Chiefs won
Patrick Mahomes clearly wasn’t 100% in this game, but he put together an all-time performance. He was strong out of the gate, going 13-of-19 in the first half for 165 yards and a touchdown to give KC the lead by seven points. In that stretch, Mahomes appeared to be a little less bothered by the sprained ankle he sustained in the divisional round a week ago. However, he seemed to aggravate it in the second half after rolling to his left and completing an 11-yard pass to Mecole Hardman. To make the throw, Mahomes had to put the whole eight of him on that bad ankle and could be seen with a more pronounced limp for the rest of the game. That said, he was still able to pull off a couple insane clutch plays, including a dart to Marquez Valdes-Scantling that resulted in a 19-yard touchdown run.
Early in the game, Mahomes also got close when Andy Reid decided to keep the offense upfield on fourth-and-1 from the Cincinnati 14. While this was before Mahomes aggravated his ankle, he was still limited in his mobility but extended the game enough to eventually find Travis Kelce – who was also dealing with his own injury – for the touchdown.
Mahomes’ ability to pull off a magical play at even less than full strength was a major reason for Kansas City’s advance.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs defense was able to choke Joe Burrow early and often and sacked him four times during Cincinnati’s first three possessions of the day. This set the tone for the rest of the game and helped hold the quarterback down to two interceptions. As we note in our second “Turning Point” below, defense clutch play by Steve Spagnuolo, especially veteran Chris Jones, helped close the door on Cincinnati pulling off another late-game comeback. Those final possessions that led to the game-winning Harrison Butker were a perfect complementary kick as the defense forced the punt, special teams gave the offense a short pitch, and that set up the kick that sends KC to Arizona.
Because the Bengalis have lost
Cincinnati didn’t do itself any favors coming out of the gate flat. All year long, the Bengals have been one of the top scoring teams in the first quarter and have been able to rack up points in each of their opening possessions this postseason up until this matchup. They punted the ball away after just five plays and this continued as they went three-and-out on their next possession. In that stretch, the defense was able to play well against the Chiefs, but they still came away with a field goal to go up 6-0.
A common theme during those opening drives of the game was the game losing down the offensive line. Burrow was sacked four times during his first three possessions. Burrow even seemed a little rushed on what was a Tee Higgins pitch that was picked up on the fourth drive of the game. At that point, the offensive line seemed to find some cohesion right before halftime and throughout the second half, but a key sack late at Burrow by Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones helped put the nail in the coffin. by Cincy. Coming into this AFC league, the Bengals were 0-3 this season when Burrow was waived five or more times and were 14-1 when he was waived fewer than five times. That trend has held here.
Cincinnati also had a pair of baffling play calls on their penultimate possession. After Joe Mixon rushed 7 yards on first down to give the club a second-and-3 situation from their 36-yard line, Burrow threw back-to-back deep hits, with the first falling incomplete and l ‘other has been eliminated by the Chiefs. While the rushing game was nonexistent for the Bengals this game (Perine and Mixon combined for 41 rushing yards), this may have been a spot to simply move the chain and live to fight another down.
Defensively, it’s hard to find too many faults with the Bengals as they limited the Chiefs as soon as the offense broke out and were able to force four punts in the second half in addition to recovering a key fumble. However, the Bengals conceded nine penalties on the day and a handful came from defense at less-than-ideal moments. Eli Apple was called for DPI on a third-and-9 to erase a sack on Mahomes and, of course, the needless rough penalty on Joseph Ossai helped enable the game-winning field goal.
As you’d expect in a game of this scale, there was a lot of swinging in momentum throughout the evening. The sequence that really moved the game in Kansas City’s favor, however, was a key defensive stop by Steve Spagnulolo’s unit late on. Cincinnati’s defense was able to force a punter just before the two-minute caution, ruining an opportunity to capitalize on a Joe Burrow interception on the previous drive. With time running down under a minute, Burrow completed a 23-yard pass to Hayden Hurst that was closing the Bengals up in midfield and possibly setting up a game-winning field goal if they picked up a few more plays.
But, on a third-and-8 from the Cincinnati 35-yard line, Chris Jones reeled in a Burrow sack, which led to an immediate timeout called by the Chiefs and a subsequent punt. That punt was returned 29 yards by rookie Skyy Moore who put the offense already in midfield, needing a manageable amount of yards to get into field goal range.
That defensive position and Moore’s stellar return to give them strong field position was enough of a swing in momentum to put the Chiefs in position to kick the game winner.
As Cincinnati went underdogs in this matchup, this fourth down conversion by Burrow in the Chase may be lost in the history books, but it was a remarkable moment in the game. The Bengals had just recovered a Patrick Mahomes fumble and it looked like they would pass up that opportunity with a three-and-out. However, Zac Taylor elected to keep his offense up the field for a fourth and sixth attempt, which was one of the bravest calls of the night.
The decision paid off as Burrow uncapped a 35-yard pass to Chase, who beat two defenders for grabs. Two plays later and Samaje Perine rushed for the touchdown to tie the game at 20 and, momentarily, keep Cincinnati’s season alive.
From here, the Chiefs will travel to Arizona, where they will face the Philadelphia Eagles, who defeated the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game on Sunday. Super Bowl LVII kicks off at 6:30 PM ET from State Farm Stadium on Sunday, February 12.