Only one quarterback in the NFL has a three-game hitting streak against Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and he’ll don the orange-striped helmet Sunday night in the AFC championship game in Kansas City.
Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals (14-4) can return to the Super Bowl by knocking out Mahomes and the Chiefs (15-3) in the conference title game for the second straight year.
“Last we played him, he made no mistakes the whole game,” Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton said of Burrow Wednesday.
The last was on December 4, a 27-24 win for the host Bengals that was nearly halfway through the team’s current 10-game hitting streak.
Cincinnati’s last loss was to Cleveland on Halloween. Burrow would tie Russell Wilson for most wins (six) by a quarterback in his first three seasons if he defeated the Chiefs again.
“He has an edge to him,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Burrow. “I like that in our quarterback.”
He hasn’t been intercepted in his last three playoff games. In three starts against the Chiefs, Burrow has nine touchdowns (one rushing), one interception and a combined 121 passer rating.
“They know us, we know them,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
A takeaway on a fumble by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce turned the game around in Cincinnati in December in the fourth quarter, and kicker Harrison Butker missed a 55-yard field goal that would have sent the game to overtime.
Mahomes will start his fifth conference championship game. His overall playoff record is 9-3, and he has 32 touchdowns (28 TD passes, four rushing) and three interceptions in 10 career playoff home games.
But Mahomes is dealing with a sprained upper right ankle. The early sprain forced him out of the Chiefs’ divisional playoff win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last week. He returned to the game with limited mobility, completing 22 of 30 passes for 195 yards with two touchdowns and was not sacked.
The expectation from the Chiefs is more of the rifle formation and top-protection look Kansas City displayed in the second half of the divisional playoffs.
If he’s operating inside a pocket-designed barricade this week, the bosses know the drill. Even though Kansas City leads the NFL in pass rushing attempts, Mahomes also had an NFL-best 34 TD passes from the pocket (41 total TD passes).
“They’re just a physical team. They play physically, start to finish, all four quarters,” said Chiefs wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
From Mahomes’ perspective behind the center, he said the challenge to sorting out the Bengals defense is the ever-changing approach behind a defensive line with no weaknesses. In last season’s AFC Championship game, defensive end Trey Hendrickson had 1.5 sacks and Sam Hubbard had two sacks and a forced fumble.
To beat the Buffalo Bills last week, the Bengals used 10 designed cornerback blitzes, a look Mahomes says has rarely been seen this season.
“They have no weaknesses,” Mahomes said.
With three starters on the offensive line injured and out in Buffalo last week, Burrow has rarely been under pressure. But the protection could be a problem for the Bengals if left tackle Jonah Williams (knee) and right guard Alex Cappa (ankle) go out again. Neither of them trained on Wednesday.
Taylor said the Bengals leaned heavily on running back Joe Mixon last week (105 rushing yards at Buffalo) to put their fill-in linemen at ease. The plan also worked against the Chiefs. Kansas City runs base defense by nickel or dime more than four other teams in 2022.
“We can’t let Joe Burrow sit in the pocket and get rhythmic pitches. We have to force him out of the pocket,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. “We’re not going to win the game if we don’t get sacks or turnovers.”
Wide receiver Mecole Hardman (pelvis) is back in practice, but Reid said the Chiefs will monitor him closely this week. Hardman did not play against the Jaguars and has been sidelined since Nov. 6.
The Chiefs do not expect running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to be activated by the injured reserve. He has missed the last eight games.
If Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo shifts gears from running fours, Burrow’s options in the passing game are led by wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase (513 career postseason receiving yards) and Tee Higgins (103 yards in last year’s AFC championship game).
Andy Reid is looking for his third Super Bowl appearance in four seasons and could find his former employer, the Philadelphia Eagles, across in Arizona on Feb. 12. A Bengals win on Sunday would make Taylor only the third head coach in NFL history to appear in two Super Bowls in his first four seasons.