KANSAS CITY, Mo. >> 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 stunned fans 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 of 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.”