There isn't a bigger AFC matchup in the second-to-last week of the NFL regular season than the battle between the AFC’s top seed in the Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) and the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals (9-6). The Chiefs enter as 4.5-point favorites, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
A win for the Chiefs could clinch that top seed if it is accompanied by a Tennessee Titans loss at the hands of the Miami Dolphins — but either way, it would inch them closer to home-field advantage. A win for the Bengals would clinch the division title, but they can still accomplish that in Week 18 if they lose.
History isn’t on the side of the Chiefs: the most recent matchup with the Bengals ended in a 45-10 blowout at Arrowhead Stadium in 2018 — but Kansas City hasn’t won a game at Paul Brown Stadium since 1984; they are 0-5 since.
I have five things to watch in a matchup that could happen again in January:
1. Riding the momentum of the pass game
It’s no secret: since the bye week, quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been flat-out better than he has been for most of this season. Without directly expressing that notion this week in his press conference, he was open about his improvement against those Cover 2 defenses that had given the offense trouble at times.
Since Week 13, the Chiefa re 4-0; Mahomes has the league’s third-best yards-per-attempt rate, passer rating and has the fourth-most total touchdowns with nine. He’s done that while not throwing a touchdown pass of over 20 yards or more in the air.
That has been coupled with a notable uptick in taking care of the ball. Only five other starting quarterbacks have thrown less than the two interceptions Mahomes has thrown in this span — and according to PFF’s Turnover-Worthy Play-Rate statistic, he has put the ball in harm’s way at the fourth-lowest rate.
Against a Bengals defense that has been stout against the run, the Chiefs need to do what they do best: attack through the air. It could be the first-team unit’s last chance to play at full speed before a postseason game — so not only is it important to ride their recent momentum to win, it’s also a chance to go into a period of rest with confidence.
2. Taming the blitz strategy
After being at the top of the league at times in blitz rate, the Chiefs and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo have tuned the rate down to 28.7% — the eighth-highest mark. It’s usually a good move to send more blitzes against young quarterbacks, but it should be a cautionary thought to Spags — who compared him to Tom Brady this week.
When blitzed this season, Bengals’ second-year quarterback Joe Burrow is completing 70.3% of his passes — earning 10.8 yards per attempt and throwing 11 touchdowns compared to four interceptions; he has a 123.9 passer rating in those situations. All of those marks are at least the fourth-best in the league this season.
It will be tempting, as the Bengals trust Burrow to operate out of an empty backfield formation often — but Spags should trust his defensive front to get enough pressure while keeping as many players in coverage as possible.
The Bengals’ weakness on offense this season is their offensive line, and they haven’t faced a unit like the (healthy) Chiefs in their recent stretch of success.
3. Protecting Mahomes in the pocket
The Bengals defense has been a welcoming surprise in Cincinnati this season, riding a handful of talented playmakers at different levels of the defense to be disruptive.
The biggest example is defensive end Trey Hendrickson — the first-year Bengal after beginning his impressive career as a third-round pick of the New Orleans Saints. He’s lived up to his free-agent deal so far: this season, he ranks fifth in the NFL with 14 sacks and has the fourth-most pressures according to PFF. He’s also top 10 with three forced fumbles this year.
This season, he has primarily attacked the offense from its left side — meaning he’d be matched up with Chiefs’ left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. It will be a big test for Brown, who we’ve seen struggle against the speed and bend around the edge a player like Hendrickson possesses.
It will be interesting to see how the Chiefs handle that particular matchup, whether it be consistent chipping or trusting Brown to hold up on his own a lot.
4. Giving coverage players plenty of help
The Bengals will not shy away from running the ball and trying to establish a consistent ground game with their outside-zone run scheme that mirrors the schemes of the Los Angeles Rams or Green Bay Packers.
That said, they know where the efficiency comes from: the passing game. The cabinet of weapons at Burrow’s disposal as absolutely accelerated his development. In back-to-back offseasons, the Bengals drafted highly-touted receivers Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase — the latter with the fifth-overall selection — to go with Tyler Boyd, who has been an established playmaker in the league.
That talent has just overwhelmed defenses at times, with Burrow hitting the right guy each time and those players turning it into a much bigger gain than the average receiver.
The other side of not wanting the Chiefs to blitz too much is that the unit needs as many coverage defenders as possible to contain a player like Chase, who can one misstep into a touchdown.
Ja’Marr Chase: Leads all players in 20+ yard touchdown catches this season pic.twitter.com/5pDSoXfb6L— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 30, 2021
5. An opportunity for the run game to make a statement
The emotion that running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire unleashed as he scored his lone touchdown last week might have been a release of frustrations during a season where he hasn’t been able to get into a true rhythm.
Whether it be injuries to him or at right tackle, the run game just isn’t as effective or as important to the team’s success as it feels like it could be with the talent the offensive line has. It was good to see the unit control the game on the ground in the second half against Pittsburgh — but the Steelers’ run defense has been exploited all season.
The Bengals have one of the league’s best run defenses statistically — allowing the fourth-fewest rushing yards and seventh-lowest yards-per-carry rate in the NFL. They also rank seventh in defensive rush DVOA.
With the postseason looming, it could be a confidence builder for the unit to have a strong performance here.