The AFC winner comes down to just one game as Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs will host last year’s AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals. We analyze the game and give our prediction.
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Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (14-3)
- Position: GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO
- Weather: Sunday, January 29 at 6:30 pm ET
- Channel: CBS
- Knock down: CK -1.5
- Money line: KC (-120), CHIN (+100)
- Above under: 48
Despite nearly all of the pre-game conversations being about Joe Burrow and the Bengals, the Chiefs will be playing their fifth straight home AFC Championship Game, which is pretty damn impressive. However, these two teams have gotten to this point in drastically different ways.
Kansas City outlasted Jacksonville, getting away with a seven-point victory despite their star quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, suffering a sprained ankle. Meanwhile, Cincinnati brought its “nobody believes in us” energy to a 27-10 demolition of the Bills on the road. All of this has the momentum and public consensus clearly in favor of Cincinnati, but is it misleading?
We know this game will boil down to a battle of elite crime. As of week 9, Kansas City is first in the NFL in Expected Points Added (EPA) per game, while Cincinnati ranks fourth. These are also the number two and three ranked teams, respectively, in Offensive DVOA at Football Outsiders in the same span.
Can both defenses step up and get enough stops to win this game?
For Kansas City, it will mean putting pressure on Joe Burrow. In his first five playoff games, Burrow was sacked 23 times and now this Bengals offensive line will be down by three starters. This could be a big deal against a Kansas City team that was 4th in the NFL in pressure rate and 2nd in the NFL in sacks.
Chris Jones is their stud, leading the Chiefs with 15.5 sacks this season, but they have a deep rotation of pass-rushers, including George Karlaftis, Khalen Saunders and Frank Clark. While Buffalo was unable to put much pressure on Burrow due to Cincinnati using a quick passing attack, the Ravens sacked him four times in the Wild Card round, which the Bengals narrowly escaped.
Another way for Cincinnati to keep pressure on Burrow is to use the running game. The Bengals ran 5.1 yards for a carry against a Buffalo defense that ranks third in Run Defense DVOA and will now face a Chiefs defense that was last in ESPN’s run-stop winning percentage.
Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine combined for 27 carries and 138 yards against the Bills, and Mixon looked good, gaining 105 yards on 20 carries. In their first meeting of the year, Cincinnati tapped the Chiefs with rushing, even with Mixon sidelined with a concussion, as Perine carried the ball 21 times for 106 yards. Given that Perine is a better pass blocker and the Bengals are linemen, I expect to see a fair amount of Perine in this game.
The Chiefs will also have their hands full with the Bengals receiving the trio of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd; although, I think it might be Boyd who gets the most out of this game. The Chiefs allow the second most touchdowns to slot in the NFL, and Boyd lines up exclusively in the slot.
Kansas City’s problems in center field could also spell a big game for Cincinnati tight end Hayden Hurst, who may be hampered somewhat by a calf injury. However, he had five catches for 59 yards and a touchdown last week against the Bills and could have a strong performance in this likely record-breaking deal.
When Kansas City gets the ball, the biggest question mark will be Mahomes’ mobility. There is a reasonable expectation that he may not scramble and improvise much this week, but that also depends on whether the Bengals put pressure on him. The Bengals had the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL this year and Kansas City gave up the third-fewest sacks, so this is a matchup of strength versus weakness. If Cincinnati can’t pressure Mahomes, will the ankle injury be that big?
We also can’t forget that Mahomes still ranks first in the NFL in QBR on passes thrown while pocketed and in throwing over 20 yards. This is a Chiefs passing offense that has led the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns, so even if people think it’s just Travis Kelce, Andy Reid and Mahomes always find a way to move the ball.
Kelce will be a big part of the passing game, but JuJu Smith-Schuster also had 933 yards on 78 catches this year and Jerick McKinnon can be a real threat as a receiver if Mahomes turns to more dump-offs and short passes.
If Kansas City is to break its losing streak against Cincinnati, it will likely have to step up from the start. Cincinnati dominated their opponents in the first quarter, outscoring them 46-0 over their last five games. Also, Cincinnati’s defense hasn’t allowed a single first-quarter touchdown in their last 12 games, so Mahomes will have to start some magic soon.
For all the talk about Cincinnati owning this rivalry, it should be pointed out that Joe Burrow is only 1-0 at Arrowhead Stadium, so it’s not a huge track record of successes. The Chiefs also had the Bengals on the ropes in last year’s AFC championship game, leading 21-10 with the ball at Cincinnati’s 1-yard line before a poor pass from Mahomes to Tyreek Hill had him tackled before the end zone and the the clock has expired.
Kansas City will be out to prove a point, and I still believe Andy Reid and company are the class of the AFC.
Prediction and choice of bets:
I think the Chiefs sacking went a little too far, and I also like the OVER here.
Kansas City 31 | Cincinnati 27
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Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow throws a pass during the first half of the NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)