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Steve Spagnuolo sees ‘young Tom Brady’ in Joe Burrow

The Bengals have the weapons — and the quarterback — to hang with the Chiefs. The counter to that lies in the pressure.

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When the NFL’s schedule was released in the summer, how many of us figured the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17 would hold significant AFC playoff implications?

Not many.

That is the beauty of playing the games. New teams emerge every year — and the Bengals certainly fit that bill. Under the leadership of quarterback Joe Burrow, Cincinnati finds itself right in the mix at the top of the AFC, two spots behind the Chiefs at No. 3.

“He’s a smooth operator,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid — often considered one of the game’s quarterback whisperers. “He does a real nice job. Looks like he’s smart, well-coached, and he’s accurate. He’s got some good wide receivers that he puts it up to, and they do a nice job too. But he’s great for the National Football League right now. These young quarterbacks, we’re so lucky to have them in this league — and it looks like we might have a couple more coming in this next year. It just makes the competition so great, and that’s what this is all about.”

Burrow comes into Sunday right behind Patrick Mahomes in passing yards at 4,165 (Mahomes has 4,310), slightly behind Mahomes in touchdowns at 30 (Mahomes has 33) and having thrown one more interception than Mahomes at 14.

But more significant than stats, Mahomes sees intangibles in the second-year player out of LSU.

“Not only is he a great football player, I think he’s a great leader,” said Mahomes of Burrow. “He has that special knack where he can lead anybody. No matter where he’s at, he can go out there with that swag, that mentality of ‘I’m going to win no matter what.’ It takes a lot of experience, and it takes a lot of just going out there and doing it for people to believe that. He has that as well as the physical talent to go out there and make a lot of stuff happen.”

As it would play out during the week, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has likened Burrow to perhaps Mahomes’ greatest early-career nemesis.

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

“This might sound crazy,” began Spagnuolo, “but I see a young Tom Brady. This guy does everything. He does not look like a second-year quarterback that missed a lot of his first year. Totally impressed with him. Began in the meeting on Tuesday. We were just finishing up the last game (against Pittsburgh) but began the meeting talking about Joe because I think he’s that good.”

And much like Mahomes, the Cincinnati organization has properly surrounded him with elite weapons. Burrow spreads the ball around between Tyler Boyd — who has nearly 800 yards on the year — and Tee Higgins, who has already broken 1,000.

But perhaps the most extraordinary organizational move was selecting rookie wideout Ja’Marr Chase with this year’s fifth overall pick. Chase caught 84 passes from Burrow for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns at LSU in 2019 — and in the NFL, they have picked up right where they left off. Burrow’s favorite target, Chase leads the trio with more than 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns. Boyd and Higgins combine for another 10.

“I think this is the best threesome, trio that we have gone through against this year,” said Spagnuolo. “I think our guys respect that, know that. Just turn on any play, any game and they just take turns being the leading receiver for a particular game. Heck of a challenge for our guys. That’s what we’re working right now. There has been a lot of conversation about those three wideouts.”

Making it even more challenging to defend Burrow is his ability to run the football. In addition to his above-average awareness and plus arm, he is not afraid to take off when necessary. The Chiefs realize they will have to pay attention to that.

NFL: OCT 17 Bengals at Lions Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“He runs a 4.7,” said defensive tackle Chris Jones. “He’s versatile. He has a great arm. His arm talent can be comparable to Justin Herbert or Josh Allen, the big-throw guys like that. Got a lot of arm power. Accuracy is some of the top of the league. He has a way to get out of trouble when needed. We definitely have to be correct on our angles this week and the way we collapse the pocket for this guy. He can be challenging at times, at all times. He can make all the throws. He can make the tight throws, so we got to do a good job at containing this guy, keeping him in the pocket, getting pressure on him in his face — whatever we can do to affect this guy because he can be a game-changer.”

As Jones alluded to, the emphasis on quarterback pressure could not be more critical when it comes to containing Burrow. Fortunately for Kansas City, it should have an advantage there against a weak Cincinnati offensive line.

The Chiefs' front four is in the best stretch of its season — and the Bengals have given up a third-worst 47 sacks on the season. Burrow has been hit by opposing players 42 times.

The Chiefs know Burrow and the weapons will get theirs; the key will be to limit effectiveness enough for the win by affecting him as much as possible.

“Got to try to find some ways to make him uncomfortable,” said Spagnuolo. “Easier said than done.”