KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs have lost three consecutive games to the Cincinnati Bengals, including last year’s AFC title game, when they blew an early 21-3 lead in an overtime loss in front of a sea of fans awe inside Arrowhead Stadium.
Patrick Mahomes, who expects to lead the Chiefs against the Bengals after spraining his right ankle in Sunday night’s rematch, is similarly winless against Bengals counterpart Joe Burrow, the only quarterback to hit him three straight.
In other words, there’s a reason the champions AFC North are imbued with a degree of confidence as they return to Kansas City, where the rising rivals will once again determine who represents the AFC in the Super Bowl.
“Your preparation leads to confidence. That’s just what you see from Joe and all our players,” explained Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who somehow overcame the deception, coach and got his team to outrun Andy Reid and his bosses in the past 13 months.”So when they walk the field on Sunday, they’re relaxed.”
In fact, the Bengals are so confident that some have taken to calling the Chiefs home “Burrowhead Stadium.”
Which, as you can imagine, doesn’t sit well with the AFC West champions.
“I’m sure a lot of kids are aware of the comments they’re making,” admitted Chiefs receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. “The Bengals have always been the rah-rah team, and they back that up. And they’re doing it again in the postseason.
Yet it’s not as if the Bengals, who outscored the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round, dominated the Chiefs, who looked after the Jacksonville Jaguars despite losing Mahomes by nearly a quarter after his injury.
All three of their encounters were decided by just three points each.
“We know which team we’re playing with, a team that’s been to this game for the last five seasons, and they’ve all been to that stadium,” Burrow said. “So for me, they are still the team to beat and we are coming for them but we know it will be tough. We know it will be fought and we know what kind of players they have on that side.”
Their encounter in last year’s title match was a classic. Mahomes threw three touchdown passes in the first half, then Burrow led a dramatic comeback for Cincinnati. And when the Chiefs’ Harrison Butker kicked a timeless 41-yard field goal to send the game into overtime, the Bengals quickly picked off Mahomes to set up Evan McPherson’s game-winning kick.
“Listen, they should probably be confident. They won three games,” said Reid, who is looking to lead Kansas City back to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons. “Okay. We’re still going to play the game.
Moreover, even the bosses have a quiet confidence in them.
“I would say they know us. We know them. And we’re all looking for that little extra you can throw against him,” Reid said. “We’ve played each other enough that I’m sure both sides feel the same way.”
MAHOMES UNDER REPAIR
The Chiefs’ All-Pro quarterback practiced as usual this week, and Mahomes’ ailing right ankle appeared no more heavily bandaged than his left. His shuffling ability is a big part of his game, however, particularly when it comes to finding time to make off-the-book shots, and any hesitation could be costly to the Kansas City offense.
“It’s about being a competitor,” Mahomes said this week. “You want to be out there, especially in these games.”
RUNNING GAME RELOADED
The Bengals have often struggled to handle the ball this season, but Joe Mixon dominated the Bills last week, despite an offensive line forced to use a trio of backup due to injuries. He finished with 105 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“There’s nothing that surprises me about it,” Mixon said. “At the same time, it’s a great thing to be able to make an important contribution with my teammates at a crucial moment. So as the moments get bigger, I just have to keep upping my game.
TALKING ABOUT RACE
Whatever Mahomes’ limitations are due to his ankle, the Chiefs will almost certainly be looking to help him by kick-starting their running game. Isiah Pacheco had 95 yards on just 12 carries last week, and most of it came during a 12-play, 98-yard drive when Mahomes was being scrutinized and backup Chad Henne was in the game.
Much of Burrow’s success is getting the ball out quickly, before passers-by can find a lane and defenders can process what’s happening. His release time averaged about 2 1/2 seconds last week and the Bills have only fired him once.
“We can’t let him sit in the pocket and get into the rhythm because that’s when he’s at his most dangerous,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. “You’re not going to win games if you don’t get sacks and turnovers, especially against a team like this.”
The Bengals have one of the best group of wide receivers in the league, led by Ja’Marr Chase, who set a franchise single-game record with 266 receiving yards in a regular season win over Kansas City last season.
They’ll face one of the younger defensive backfields, who often has three rookie corners and a rookie safety on the field at the same time.
“Hopefully we’ve grown enough that we can match what they’ve put out there,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “This is an elite group that we are going up against. We must have an elite game. We have to play our best game of the year.”
CINCINNATI (14-4) to KANSAS CITY (15-3)
Sunday, 6:30 pm EST, CBS
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK NFL LINE: Bengals by 1 1/2.
AGAINST THE SPREAD: Bengals 13-5, Chiefs 6-11-1.
SERIES RECORD: Bengals lead 18-14.
LAST GAME: The Bengals beat the Chiefs 27-24 on December 4 in Cincinnati.
LAST WEEK: The Bengals beat the Bills 27-10; The Chiefs beat the Jaguars 27-20.
BENGALS ATTACK: AGGREGATE (8), RUSH (7), PASS (5), SCORE (29).
BENGALS DEFENSE: AGGREGATE (16), RUSH (7), PASS (23), SCORE (6).
LEADER ATTACK: AGGREGATE (1), RUSH (20), PASS (1), SCORE (1)
LEADER DEFENSE: AGGREGATE (11), RUSH (8), PASS (18), SCORE (16)
TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Bengals plus-6; Heads minus-3.
BENGALS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Joe Burrow is 3-0 up against Chiefs counterpart Patrick Mahomes, including his comeback win in last year’s AFC title game. He is coming off a season in which he set Bengals records for completions (414), pass attempts (606) and touchdown passes (35). He threw for 250 yards with two touchdowns and a pick in last year’s AFC championship game.
LEADING PLAYER TO FOLLOW: All eyes are on Mahomes, and more specifically his right ankle, which sprained in last weekend’s division win against Jacksonville. Mahomes was X-rayed during the game, but came back to lead Kansas City to the eventual game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. He had an MRI exam the next day that confirmed a high ankle sprain, but Mahomes and Chiefs coach Andy Reid had been insisting all week that he would play against the Bengals. The All-Pro quarterback had perhaps his best season, throwing for 5,250 yards with 41 touchdown passes.
KEY MATCHUP: The Bengals’ fleet of wide receivers, led by Ja’Marr Chase, against the Kansas City defensive backfield, which regularly plays three rookie cornerbacks and a rookie safety. Chase had seven catches for 97 yards in the Bengals’ 27-24 win in December, while Tyler Boyd had four catches for 60 yards and Tee Higgins had three for 35 yards and a score.
INJURIES: Bengals OG Alex Cappa (ankle) and OT Jonah Williams (knee) missed practice this week while CB Tre Flowers (hamstring) and LB Joe Bachie (foot) were restricted. Chiefs WR Mecole Hardman (dock) were also limited.
SERIES NOTES: The Bengals went on a three-game hitting streak against Kansas City, all by three-pointers, two of them in Cincinnati. The one played in Kansas City was last year’s AFC title game, as the Bengals rallied from an early 21-3 deficit to win 27-24 in overtime. That was the first postseason game played between the two former AFL rivals, who first met in Cincinnati’s 1968 inaugural season. Andy Reid is 1-4 against the Bengals and Mahomes is 1-3 , since the head coach and quarterback joined the Chiefs. The Bengals won their most recent encounter, 27-24 in December.
STATS AND STUFF: This is the record fifth straight conference championship game hosted by Kansas City. The Chiefs’ five-game appearance streak is tied with Oakland (1973-77) and behind only the Patriots (2011-18) for most in NFL history. … The Bengals are making their fourth appearance in the AFC Championship. … Bengals RB Joe Mixon needs 43 rushing yards to pass Pete Johnson (5,421) for fourth most in franchise history. … Chase set the Bengals single-game record for receiving yards with 266 against Kansas City in a win on January 2, 2022. … Bengals K Evan McPherson was 4 of 4 on field goals and scored his only PAT try in the AFC title last year’s game. … Cincinnati rushed for 172 yards in last week’s divisional win over Buffalo, the fourth-best postseason total in franchise history. … Chiefs coach Andy Reid is tied with Tom Landry with 20 postseason wins. The only head coach with more is the Patriots’ Bill Belichick (31). … TE Travis Kelce and LS James Winchester tied a Chiefs record last week with their 16 career playoff games. … Kelce had 14 catches last week against Jacksonville, setting a playoff record for the Chiefs. The total was one off the NFL postseason record shared by the Saints’ Darren Sproles and the Patriots’ James White. … Kelce had 1,389 receiving yards in the playoffs, tied with retiree Rob Gronkowski for third most in NFL history. Kelce needs 53 yards to pass Julian Edelman for second behind Jerry Rice. … Mahomes is 9-3 in the playoffs as an NFL starter. … Mahomes needs three TD passes to pass Dan Marino (32) for eighth on the league’s career postseason list. … Mahomes and Chiefs backup Chad Henne will become two of five QBs who will be active for five straight conference championship games. Tom Brady, Ken Stabler and Daryle Lamonica are the others. … Chiefs DE Frank Clark has 12 playoff sacks, tied with Reggie White for No. 4 on career roster since they became an official statistic in 1982.