Let's not waste time with a long preamble: It's Championship Sunday in the NFL. In the AFC Championship, the No. 1 seed and AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs will play host to the No. 3 seed and AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals.
These two teams met earlier this season, as well as in the conference championship game last year. Cincinnati won both of those contests, but the Chiefs are once again working with home-field advantage. Before we break down the matchup, here's a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch
Date: Sunday, Jan. 29 | Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
Location: GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Missouri)
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)
Odds: Chiefs -1.5, O/U 48
When the Bengals have the ball
Last week, the big story going into the Bengals' game against the Buffalo Bills was the offensive line. How would the group in front of Joe Burrow hold up while down three starters, and counting on the likes of Jackson Carman, Hakeem Adeniji, and Max Scharping? As it turned out, it held up just fine.
Burrow was pressured on only 31.6% of his dropbacks, according to Tru Media, a well-below average rate. Bengals ball-carriers averaged an impressive 1.94 yards per carry before contact, a significant improvement from the 1.26 per carry they clocked during the regular season. Not only did the Buffalo defensive line not dominate the game; it was largely dominated. Cincinnati controlled the line of scrimmage from the jump.
Now, the question becomes whether the offensive line can do it again. The Chiefs actually pressured opposing quarterbacks at a higher rate (35.7%) during the regular season than did the Bills (33.7%). And given that Buffalo was without Von Miller last week, the Chiefs also have a higher-caliber individual threat (Chris Jones) than any the Bills brought to the table a week ago. There is good news and bad news for the Bengals on that front. The good is that the two remaining starters along the offensive line (Ted Karras and Cordell Volson) both play on the interior, where Jones does his work. The bad is that Scharping also plays on the interior, and the Chiefs can align Jones wherever they want to generate advantageous matchups.
The real way the Bengals can neutralize the rush, though, is through Burrow. Against Buffalo, Burrow got the ball out in an average of 2.57 seconds, according to Tru Media, a figure right in line with his season-long average of 2.55 seconds to throw. Only Tom Brady (2.33 seconds) got rid of the ball faster this season, and only Brady released a higher share of his throws (55.3%) within 2.5 seconds of the snap than Burrow (55.0%). Burrow's superpower is his ability to quickly decide where he is going with the ball and get it out of his hands when the situation calls for him to do so, but he also has the extended play ability that the league's other superstar quarterbacks bring to the table.
It helps that he has arguably the best cadre of weapons in the league -- or at least in his conference -- to choose from. Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins give him two alpha No. 1 receivers, each of whom can both make contested grabs and create yards after the catch. Chase is nearly impossible to bring down with the first tackler, and the Bengals take advantage of that fact by getting him the ball on screens and crossers so he can attack defenders with a head of steam. In the first matchup between these two teams, the Chiefs too often left their inexperienced corners on an island with Chase or Higgins on the outside, and Burrow repeatedly made them pay for it. Steve Spagnuolo needs to come with a different plan of attack this time around.
It will be interesting to see whether the Chiefs slide L'Jarius Sneed back outside and re-insert Trent McDuffie into the slot, after they switched those positions back last week against the Jaguars. Jacksonville's top receiving threat was Christian Kirk, so the Chiefs moved Sneed into the slot again. The top threats for Cincinnati remain Chase and Higgins, not Tyler Boyd, so it might make sense to get Sneed back to the perimeter and allow McDuffie to try to play physically against Boyd inside. Spagnuolo should still be careful to give Sneed and Jaylen Watson appropriate help, though, or Burrow will aggressively work the one-on-one matchups and trust his guys to win the ball in the air. Being able to send enough bodies after Burrow to generate pressure while also keeping enough in coverage to ensure they don't get smoked on the outside will be a tricky balance.
The Bengals got a lot better at running the ball once they moved away from the way they wanted to run the ball at the beginning of the season. They were an under-center, outside-zone team early on, and it was extremely vanilla. They moved to almost an exclusively shotgun offense early in the year, and it allowed them to get a bit more unpredictability in their rushing attack. Kansas City finished a respectable 15th in rush defense DVOA this season, per Football Outsiders, so this is not one of those units where you can just run the ball down its throats if you want to, like it has been occasionally in seasons past. Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine surely have their role to play here, but the Bengals are best off doing what they do best: letting Burrow control the game by playing point guard from the pocket.
When the Chiefs have the ball
Well, this all really comes down to one question: Is Patrick Mahomes healthy enough to play like Patrick Mahomes? Honestly, I have no idea, and I think anyone (other than maybe the Chiefs' team doctors) who tells you they know with any degree of certainty is lying.
So, let's try to figure out what we do know:
- We know Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo will once again have a bespoke game plan to deal with Mahomes and the Chiefs' passing attack.
- We know that game plan will likely differ at least a bit from what we saw back in Week 13, which itself differed a bit from what we saw in last year's AFC title game.
- We know the Kansas City passing game flows through Travis Kelce, and the Bengals will likely try to take him away by using Tre Flowers to get physical with him near the line of scrimmage and sending other coverage defenders his way farther down the field.
- We know the Chiefs re-engineered their offense this past offseason to counteract the type of defenses the Bengals and other teams used against them last year, getting players to fit in specific roles to take their quick game, straight dropback game, and run game to a different level.
- We know all of those moves largely worked, with Mahomes leading the NFL in EPA per dropback, Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon giving them their most versatile backfield in years, and the Chiefs having arguably their best offensive season since Mahomes won (his first) MVP award back in 2018.
- We know the Bengals know all of those things, and that the Chiefs know they know it, and that the Bengals know that the Chiefs know they know it and etc.
If Mahomes is healthy, he should be trusted to figure things out. Even in the loss to Cincinnati earlier this season, Mahomes completed 16 of 27 passes for 223 yards (8.2 per attempt) and a touchdown, while also adding a score on the ground. Were it not for a Kelce fumble, we might talk about that game a lot differently. It's not like Mahomes was completely shut down, after all. Kansas City scored on four of its first six drives, and one of those drives was just running out the clock on the first half with two runs from deep in their own territory. So, on five possessions, they totaled 24 points. Then Kelce fumbled, Cincy scored, Harrison Butker missed a game-tying field goal, and the rest is Cincinnati's mayor claiming Burrow is Mahomes' father, or something. (If anything, it should be Anarumo is Mahomes' father, but I digress.)
In that game, though, the Bengals made Mahomes be incredibly patient. He took an average of 3.36 seconds before passing the ball, the seventh-longest time to throw of his 91 career games. (Two of the six games where he took longer were the AFC title game loss to Cincinnati last year, and the Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers the year before.) Part of the reason he was able to find success anyway was that he could maneuver in the pocket with his mobility, and he used that mobility to create big plays down the field. The quick game stuff the Chiefs tried to add back into their offense this season was largely not available.
Whether it's available this week will depend on whether Anarumo decides that Mahomes' injury means he should send pressure and make him try to move around, or that he should not send pressure because Mahomes can't move around. If Cincy sends pressure, Mahomes can carve the defense up from the pocket, like he did last week against the Jaguars. The Bengals have very rarely blitzed in these last two games against the Chiefs, though, and they're not a heavy blitz team anyway. It seems unlikely that Anarumo suddenly reverses course on that. But if the Bengals don't send extra bodies, it's also likely that the wall the Chiefs have built in front of Mahomes over these last two years holds up and allows him time to find the free man down the field.
I'd expect that Kansas City will be in shotgun more often than not so that Mahomes doesn't have to move around too much to facilitate the run game or get into the play-action pass concepts, which means it should be a heavier game for McKinnon than Pacheco. McKinnon is an ace pass-protector and has a bit more big-play juice due to his agility, but Pacheco does have the ability to get downhill and punish the Bengals for playing with light boxes. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Chiefs try to get their run game going early so that the Bengals have to creep up and allow for more downfield throws.