The primary problem for the Chiefs in their failures was penalties throughout the contest — some justified and some questionable — but all of them seemingly untimely. Kansas City was called for 10 penalties for 83 yards, including a penalty that decided the game: illegal use of hands on L’Jarius Sneed.
In a game in which the Chiefs once led by two touchdowns (28-14) — impressive given the fact that Kansas City built the lead with a replacement offensive line — the momentum seemed to shift to Cincinnati on a holding penalty to Zayne Anderson late in the second quarter. After a Bengals field goal narrowed the Chiefs’ lead to 11, it appeared that wide receiver Byron Pringle had broken off an 89-yard touchdown return.
It would have been 35-17 heading into the halftime locker room, but the penalty to Anderson took the score off the board. Two plays later, wide receiver Tyreek Hill dropped a deep pass that would have put the Chiefs in threatening territory. Instead, the Chiefs got no more points — and the Bengals started with the ball in the third quarter.
The Bengals’ defense played much better in the second half, holding the Chiefs to three points while scoring on three out of their four possessions to come back and win the game.
The Chiefs’ defensive front was solid throughout the day — it sacked quarterback Joe Burrow four times — but quite simply, the secondary was not good against wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who exploded for 266 yards and three touchdowns. But worse is that Chase already had 111 yards at the halftime break. Despite that fact, the Chiefs continued to leave him single-covered. They paid dearly for it.
Even at times when cornerback Charvarius Ward was playing him well, Chase made tough, contested catches — yet it never seemed as though Ward was being given any help. The worst play of the game, by far, came as the Bengals faced third-and-27. Rather than softening the coverage, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo brought some heat. Scanning the pressure, Burrow completed a 30-yard first-down pass to Chase — who was once again only single-covered by Ward.
In the final two minutes of the game at the goal line — rather than letting the Bengals score to get the ball back — the Chiefs chose to go for the stand. Had it not been for yet another penalty, it might even have been the right call.
The loss means the Chiefs have relinquished their seeding control of the AFC playoffs to the Tennessee Titans, who have the Houston Texans next week — an opponent they are likely to beat. With rumblings of running back Derrick Henry reentering the fold in the postseason, the Chiefs have handed the Titans a massive advantage.
It’s still an any-given-Sunday league, so nothing is written in stone — but Sunday’s result likely means the Chiefs won’t have a week off their feet unless they’re able to get to the Super Bowl buffer week.
There are two roads here.
One is that Sunday reminds the Chiefs to realize they can still be beaten if they don’t show up — and they rise to the occasion next week against the Denver Broncos. The other is that this is a sign of things to come — and any talk of a “buffer” week is just a waste of breath.