Also for the first time this season, they’ll be trying to rebound from a loss — last week’s Sunday night game against the New England Patriots.
Here are five things to watch during the game:
1. Irresistible forces against movable objects
In their six games so far, the Chiefs have played three of the NFL’s top 10 teams in points scored, and three of the NFL’s top 10 in yardage gained. Is that because these teams played against a terrible Chiefs defense, is it that the Chiefs defense has had the misfortune to play a lot of games against really good offenses?
That isn’t likely to become any clearer as a result of this game.
In many ways, the Chiefs and Bengals are alike. All things considered, both have strong offenses and weak defenses. The Chiefs have the edge on offense, and the Bengals have the edge on defense. Both teams score on a high percentage of their drives. So it’s very likely this will be an exciting, high-scoring game — and those kinds of games often depend on the turnover battle.
This means that much will depend on Patrick Mahomes’ ability to avoid interceptions. Andy Dalton has thrown seven picks to Mahomes’ four in six games. If that ratio holds, this would be an advantage for the Chiefs.
But beware: the Bengals have three fourth-quarter comebacks this season. In two of those games, they outscored their opponents by 17 or more points in the fourth quarter. The good news for the Chiefs is that both of those games happened at home. Still... don’t count the Bengals out until the final gun has sounded.
2. Playing the slowdown game
In four of their six games, the Chiefs defense has been on the field for significantly more snaps than the offense. This is one of the reasons — although certainly not the only one — the defensive unit has given up so many yards. In three of these games — against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots — the vast majority of the difference took place in the fourth quarter.
Why? Because the Chiefs — in all but one instance, holding the lead — have played the so-called “prevent” defense, allowing the trailing team to gain yardage with underneath passes, but denying them big plays to score quickly. Essentially, this approach trades yards for time — and if your team holds the lead in the fourth quarter, time is the more valuable commodity.
Fans hate the prevent defense, because they believe it gives the opponent too much of a chance to win the game. But coaches do it for one simple reason: because most of the time, it works — if the offense is also playing to take time off the clock.
And this is the area where the Chiefs have been deficient. Late in their games, they have been unable to demonstrate an ability to run short plays — either by running the ball, or executing the short, high-percentage passes that are the heart of the West Coast offense — to secure first downs and extend drives.
Last Sunday night, this inability led to the biggest strategic blunder of the season: giving Tom Brady the ball in a tie game with three minutes remaining on the clock. It’s perfectly reasonable to criticize Bob Sutton for leaving Josh Shaw one on one with Rob Gronkowski on the Patriots final drive, but let’s be honest: who would bet against Brady (and Bill Belichick) in that situation — even if they were facing the best defense in the NFL?
The Chiefs must figure out a way to grind it out on offense and sustain their fourth-quarter drives. Against the Bengals — as previously noted — this could be especially important. But the Bengals also present an opportunity, as they are not particularly good against the run. Will the Chiefs take advantage of the opportunity, and let the offense learn how to help the defense?
3. It’s not just A.J. Green
As we noted in this week’s Five questions with the enemy, while the Bengals do not possess the kind of receiving corps that the Chiefs have fielded this year, neither are they one-dimensional at wide receiver. The Chiefs will have to limit both their star wide receiver A.J. Green and third-year wideout Tyler Boyd, who has 455 yards and four touchdowns on 37 receptions this year.
The Chiefs, however, should not have to worry too much about receivers coming out of the backfield. Bengals running backs have only 208 yards on 31 receptions this season. Nor have Bengals tight ends posed a huge threat thus far, combining for 386 yards on 34 receptions.
The problem is going to be Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard as rushers. At this writing, it’s unclear if Bernard will play against the Chiefs, but Mixon could easily be a threat against the Kansas City run defense. As The AP Nerd Squad’s Matt Lane noted in his review of Chiefs inside linebackers, the Bengals may be able to what other teams have done — exploit the difficulties the Chiefs are having getting their act together, and come up big in the running game.
4. Rushing the passer
Again in this week’s Five questions with the enemy, Cincy’s Jungle’s Patrick Judis expressed concern about the right side of the Bengals offensive line — guard Alex Redmond and tackle Bobby Hart — and his worry isn’t unfounded.
The Chiefs may find enough of a weakness on the right side of the Bengals line to consistently apply pressure to Dalton — and under pressure is where Dalton is least effective. But the Chiefs are going to have to do it without blitzing, because Dalton is pretty good at making defenses pay when they blitz. So just like last week, the Chiefs interior defensive linemen are going to have to do their jobs well.
Going the other way, the Chiefs are going to have to pay close attention to Geno Atkins on the interior, and Carlos Dunlap on the edge. These guys are good, combining for 10 sacks this season. The Chiefs offensive line has only allowed six, but the Bengals will be a tough test.
The good news is that last week’s quick fix to Mitch Morse leaving the Patriots game with a concussion — moving Jordan Devey to center and bringing Andrew Wylie to right guard — worked out all right. At this writing, it appears Morse will not return this week, so Devey and Wylie will have a big task before them.
One more note for the Chiefs offense: should Mahomes try to scramble for a first down, will someone please make absolutely sure Vontaze Burfict is nowhere near him? Thanks.
5. Mahomes-field advantage
It appears likely that Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard will not play on Sunday night. Not only did he not practice on Thursday, but also on Thursday, the Bengals waived wide receiver Auden Tate to make room to move KeiVarae Russell from their practice squad to the active roster. Russell is expected to play on Sunday.
Russell, of course, is a familiar name to Chiefs fans. He entered the league as a third-round pick for the Chiefs in 2016, and has been with the Bengals the last two seasons. Replacing Tate — a seventh-round pick this year — with a practice squad cornerback is a pretty clear sign the Bengals don’t expect Dennard to be available on Sunday.
And it’s possible that safety Shawn Williams will not play, either. Williams is recovering from a concussion, and while he did not practice on Wednesday, he was only limited on Thursday.
This may provide Patrick Mahomes with some opportunities in front of the home crowd. Mahomes has already passed for more yards — 2149 — than any other modern-era quarterback through his first seven games. With four touchdown passes on Sunday, he would eclipse the mark of 21 set by Kurt Warner through eight games.
With a really big game, it’s also possible he could exceed Warner’s passer rating of 121.9 through eight career games.