You've seen it; we've all seen it.
For some reason, media and fans alike seem to be doing everything in their power to convince themselves the first meeting between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals showed everyone that they have the formula to win again.
I'd argue that analysis is missing a little something to be desired. Beating the Chiefs in the regular season? That's one thing. Beating the Chiefs in the postseason has been another thing entirely.
Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Before we get to why this game will be different, let's look back at what had to happen for the Chiefs to lose to the Bengals the first time these teams met.
The Chiefs went into halftime leading the Bengals by a score of 28-17. Things were looking good for Kansas City! Patrick Mahomes was 17 for 22 for 209 yards and two touchdowns. The offense scored four touchdowns and racked up 16 first downs on their first five offensive possessions. What more could you ask for? The Bengals had one sustained drive in the first half and another touchdown on the 72-yard catch-and-run from Joe Burrow to Ja'Marr Chase. All they had to do was slow down Chase, and they were home-free. The No. 1 seed was in their grasp!
And then, well, everything changed.
The second half was a comedy of errors for the Chiefs. Drops, penalties and questionable decisions all played a role.
The Chiefs' defense was called for five penalties in the second half. The special teams had a kickoff return touchdown called back on a (questionable) holding call. The offense barely had possession of the ball, punting twice and kicking a field goal on their only offensive possessions in the half. The Bengals got the ball in a tie game with 6:01 to play, and Mahomes never saw the ball again.
In the end, the Chiefs averaged 7.1 yards per play, didn't turn the ball over and lost. Those are the numbers that lead to takes like this:
How significant is the Bengals win over the Chiefs in Week 17?— Good Morning Football (@gmfb) January 27, 2022
@KyleBrandt: "What is especially relevant to me is the Chiefs didn't make any mistakes in that game and they still lost." pic.twitter.com/VvfUzx3FVY
But that's... not exactly true.
The Chiefs' bottom-line numbers might look good on the surface, but there were issues under the surface. The team committed 10 penalties for 83 yards in the game. Chase was seemingly single-covered all day long despite posting a 11-266-3 stat line. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce had 65 receiving yards combined on the day. Orlando Brown Jr. missed the game with a calf injury he sustained in pre-game warmups (what???), so the Chiefs went with Joe Thuney at left tackle and Nick Allegretti on the left side of the offensive line.
If all of that happens again, yeah, I'll follow the crowd and pick the upstart Bengals. You can go ahead and consider me skeptical of that taking place.
So what needs to change? How do the Chiefs prevent the upset?
1) Limit Burrow's big play balls to Ja'Marr Chase
It's easier said than done, but the Chiefs have to slow down Chase. He's the game-wrecker on this offense. The Burrow-Chase connection is as dynamic as any in the game. Chase, this season, became the first NFL receiver with multiple games with at least 200 receiving yards since 2013. He finished with the most receiving touchdowns by a rookie receiver since Randy Moss (1998).
He's quite good! He and Burrow also happen to be uniquely qualified to beat this Chiefs' defense. It's almost as if this duo was created in a lab to give Steve Spagnuolo nightmares.
Spagnuolo turns quarterback tendencies against the offense. One of those tendencies is a reluctance to throw outside the numbers. Spags bets on that hesitance and builds his defense around it.
There's one slight problem there: Burrow has no fear of throwing outside the numbers, especially when it's going to Chase. Only Tua Tagovailoa threw into tight coverage at a higher rate this season than Burrow. This was a big issue for the Chiefs in the last meeting, as Chase shredded the Chiefs cornerbacks on 50-50 balls.
Joe Burrow SHREDDED outside the numbers in Week 17— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 2, 2022
Wow, passing charts like this are uncommon pic.twitter.com/v33p45WwVP
How do you solve this? It's a great question. Sometimes the opposing team just has more answers than you. Maybe that's the case with this Burrow-and-Chase connection. The Chiefs don't have to stop Chase. That's unrealistic. But slowing him down? That has to be the goal.
2) Eliminate the damn penalties
This is pretty self-explanatory. The Chiefs repeatedly shot themselves in the foot in the first meeting with the Bengals. They finished with 10 accepted penalties for 83 yards. More importantly, the Bengals earned six first downs off of Chiefs' penalties. Let's put that in context, as it's a WILD number.
Chiefs opponents' first downs via a penalty in the second half of the season:
- Bills - 0
- Steelers - 1
- Broncos - 1
- Bengals - 6
- Steelers - 1
- Chargers - 2
- Raiders - 4
- Broncos - 0
- Cowboys - 1
- Raiders - 1
Can you spot the outlier? The Chiefs gave their opponents a total of nine first downs via penalty in the six games before playing the Bengals. They've allowed two such first downs in the three games since. They handed the Bengals six free first downs in Cincinnati.
Yeah, that can't happen. And if this season is any indication, it shouldn't. Bill Vinovich will be the head referee for the AFC championship game. His crew averaged the fewest called penalties per game this season.
Your Conference Championship Officials— SIS (@SportsInfo_SIS) January 27, 2022
AFC- Bill Vinovich crew: 10.9 penalties per game (fewest)
NFC- Carl Cheffers crew: 16.5 penalties per game (most) pic.twitter.com/axI2vMWnNa
The Chiefs have just four accepted penalties for 35 yards through the first two weeks of the postseason. That's a trend that needs to continue Sunday.
3) Lean on your superstars
OK — let's get to the real reason nobody should be picking against the Chiefs this week: They've been there, done that before.
Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are on a bit of a heater right now. Kelce's riding a streak of five straight playoff games with at least 95 yards receiving. Hill has at least 70 receiving yards or a touchdown in each of his last seven playoff games. Mahomes has thrown for more than 2,500 yards and has 27 total touchdowns with just one interception in eight career home playoff games.
- Patrick Mahomes in home playoff games: 69% completion percentage, 2,550 passing yards (8.7 yards per attempt), 27 total touchdowns, one interception, 120.5 QB Rating
- Travis Kelce's last five postseason games: 44 receptions for 564 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns
- Tyreek Hill's last five postseason games: 40 receptions for 562 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns
That said, the last time these teams met, the Chiefs struggled to get Hill and Kelce going. The two combined for just 11 receptions but just 65 total yards on 17 targets. The Bengals did a good job of taking away Mahomes' main weapons and forced the Chiefs to lean more heavily on their secondary targets. I don't know about you, but I'm not betting on that happening twice in a span of a month.
Bet against the Chiefs if you would like. There are plenty who will do exactly that. Maybe they'll be right if the Chiefs allow another 200-yard day for Chase, commit 10 penalties and fail to get Kelce and Hill involved in a way that hasn't happened in the last two postseasons.
I don't know about you, but I have a feeling this is going to be a bit different than the last time these teams met.