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Chiefs vs. Bengals Instabreakdown: one good half, one bad half

Cincinnati’s strong second half led to a big comeback against Kansas City.

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Final score: Cincinnati Bengals 34, Kansas City Chiefs 31

Offense (Bryan Stewart)

It was a tale of two halves — not just for the Chiefs’ offense, but for the team in general.

After an extremely impressive 28-point burst in the first half, the offense posted just three in the second half. Long Cincinnati drives minimized opportunities — and with the few drives they did have, Kansas City was unable to put the ball in the end zone.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was nearly flawless in the opening half, finishing the contest completing 26 of 35 passes for 259 passing yards (7.4 yards per attempt), two touchdown passes and no interceptions. The ball was spread around very well: 10 different receivers caught passes. Mecole Hardman led the team with 53 receiving yards — all of them coming on one explosive catch-and-run.

With Clyde Edwards-Helaire out with an injury, running back Darrel Williams stepped into more of a starter role — and he looked really good running behind Kansas City’s powerful blockers. Despite a bad result, the Chiefs’ offense really seemed to catch a groove with Williams’ power coming downhill at the Cincinnati defensive front. Williams finished with 88 rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry) and two rusing touchdowns.

The offensive line depth was put to the test with two very early injuries. Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. didn’t play after injuring a calf in pre-game warmups. Nominal right tackle Lucas Niang took over on the left — as Andrew Wylie played on the right side — but after starting the game quite well, Niang left with what appeared to be a serious patellar tendon injury. Joe Thuney then moved into the spot, while Nick Allegretti filled in at left guard. Overall, the offensive line performed very strongly.

We can’t discuss this game without mentioning the officiating problems. Bad calls can go both ways — and not really end up making a huge impact on the outcome of a game. But here’s simply no way one can watch what happened in Cincinnati without recognizing the uphill battle Kansas City had in overcoming highly questionable calls.

With that said, the Chiefs now finds themselves in a too-familiar position: needing unlikely help from another team during the last week of the regular season. If the Chiefs can’t beat the Denver Broncos next Sunday — and the Houston Texans do not also defeat the Tennessee Titans — the Chiefs will be hosting a playoff game on Wild Card Weekend. When a first-round bye was right there for the taking, this is not ideal.

Offensive player of the game: offensive lineman Joe Thuney

Mahomes was special today, too; I don’t want to pretend he wasn’t also worthy. But the truth is that offensive linemen rarely ever get the type of love and recognition they deserve. On Sunday, Thuney earned that much.

Being asked to slide out from guard to left tackle — and face a star pass rusher such as Trey Hendrickson — is a tall, tall task. Thuney appeared to dominate in the running game — and also helped prevent Hendrickson from getting at least one sack in 12 consecutive games. Kudos to the Chiefs’ best offensive lineman.

Defense (Talon Graff)

The defense began the game with a Frank Clark sack on the very first snap to Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. The Bengals punted two plays later — which was a huge opening drive stop following the Chiefs’ own three-and-out to open the game. Chris Jones got in on the action on the ensuing Cincinnati drive, tallying his first sack of the game. But Kansas City wouldn’t force another punt until the third quarter.

The Bengals aerial duo of quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase carried over their success from Week 15, taking full advantage of continuous one-on-one coverage. Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was dialing up quite a few blitzes — which left cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton alone in man coverage. Chase put together an entire highlight reel against the Chiefs secondary on his way to 266 receiving yards — setting a new single-game record for a rookie receiver — and three touchdowns. The Kansas City defense allowed Burrow to throw for 446 yards and four touchdowns.

The tackling looked like it regressed; there were multiple missed tackles in all four quarters. Linebacker Nick Bolton was not available against the Pittsburgh Steelers — and in his first game back, he looked a bit off — tallying only four tackles. The Bengals only handed off the ball 14 times — while Burrow dropped back 44 times — so the defense had to play many pass coverage reps.

The effectiveness of the passing attack — and the early Chiefs’ lead — negated much of the threat from the Cincinnati ground game. The front seven allowed only 60 yards on the ground for a 3.2 yards-per-carry average. Jones, Jarran Reed and Derrick Nnadi all put in a good day’s work along the inside of the defensive line.

Kansas City’s pass rush set the tone early in the matchup, but failed to maintain that pressure. Defensive end Alex Okafor added a big third-down sack that forced a Cincinnati field goal late in the first half. Jones notched another sack, putting the Bengals into third-and-27 — which Burrow converted with a 30-yard pass to Chase over Ward.

With so many blitzes leading to cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage against high-qualitty receivers, there will be plenty of scrutiny of the defensive play-calling. But one big scoring play was the result of safety Daniel Sorensen getting caught with his eyes in the backfield instead of helping to cover Chase deep. Perhaps Spagnuolo went with what he felt was going to be the most effective use of his personnel — but unfortunately, the Bengals had the weapons to counter.

Defensive player of the game: defensive tackle Chris Jones

Jones made his presence felt with two big sacks that put the Chiefs defense in good positions to get off the field. He was also a force in the middle to stop the run. Throughout the game, was gave the Bengals’ offensive line fits, consistently winning reps with his quick twitch and violent hands. In big-time games, Jones is vital to the defense’s success.