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Chiefs-Bengals AFC Championship: 5 things to watch

Sunday will be the last chance this year for an AFC team to knock Kansas City off its throne atop the conference.

Kansas City Chiefs v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It will be difficult for this game to match the insanity of the Divisional Round, but the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals will sure try in the AFC Championship at Arrowhead Stadium.

After knocking the Chiefs out of the No. 1 seed in the conference with a Week 17 win, the Bengals haven't looked back — beating the Las Vegas Raiders and Tennessee Titans on their way to the franchise's first AFC Championship appearance since 1988.

Since that week, Kansas City has also gotten hot, winning three straight games — including both playoff games with over 40 points scored.

There's a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance on the line for one team; on the other side, it could be the first Super Bowl berth in over 30 years.

I have five things to watch in the high-stakes battle:

1. A big day for Chiefs pass rushers

Kansas City Chiefs v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

There may not be a more significant mismatch on the field than the Bengals' offensive line against the Chiefs' defensive line.

Last week, Tennessee racked up nine sacks against Cincinnati — the most in a single playoff game in NFL history. It wasn't a one-time occurrence; it's been a problem all year: the Bengals had the second-highest rate of dropbacks turned into sacks in the regular season. In Week 17, the Chiefs got to Burrow four times; defensive tackle Chris Jones notched two of those.

Cincinnati's line really struggles to block pass-rush stunts — where a defensive end may loop to an inside gap while an interior player attacks an outside gap. Edge rushers like Frank Clark and Melvin Ingram have excelled in those situations, using their athleticism for their size to beat a lineman to the inside gap he's stunting to.

Then there's Chris Jones, who can rag-doll interior offensive linemen like the Bengals' right guard Hakeem Adeniji — who had a lot of trouble with Titans' defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons last week.

The pass rush's impact could be what allows or prevents the Bengals from making this a contest.

2. Continuing to use Mecole Hardman in his ideal role

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Over the last month, we may have witnessed the most impactful stretch of wide receiver Mecole Hardman's career.

He's had more productive points; early in his rookie year, he filled in for wide receiver Tyreek Hill admirably and showed off his explosion with some highlight-reel plays. Now, Hardman is executing his niche role that has boosted the ceiling of this offense.

He may not be getting the second-most snaps at his position — and he may not be producing the raw numbers like some hoped he could when he was selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft — but the Chiefs are utilizing his strengths to get the best out of him. They do that by deploying him strictly on well-setup quick screens, jet sweeps, and other quick-hitting passes.

Instead of forcing Hardman to be a traditional receiver, the coaching staff is putting him in the best positions to succeed — and it has paid off for the Chiefs' offense down the stretch.

3. Coverage redemption

Kansas City Chiefs v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

After a nice stretch in the middle of the season, it has not been an impressive run for the Chiefs' defensive backs as of late.

Since Ja'Marr Chase and these Bengals roasted them in Week 17, Kansas City's pass coverage struggled to get stops against the Denver Broncos in Week 18 — then they were torn through by the Buffalo Bills last week. I don't think a wide receiver has ever been as open as constantly as wide receiver Gabriel Davis was in a playoff game.

Now they get a chance at revenge against the team that exploited them to the tune of 446 passing yards and four touchdowns — with 266 of those yards coming from Chase. They'll also have reinforcements returning: cornerback Rashad Fenton was a full participant in practice this week, and there's optimism that safety Tyrann Mathieu can return after fully participating in two practices this week.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo may adjust his game plan slightly, but it will still leave cornerbacks on islands; it's up to them to finish the plays and break up the passes this time.

4. Orlando Brown Jr. vs. Trey Hendrickson

NFL: DEC 26 Ravens at Bengals Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the Week 17 matchup, Chiefs' starting left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. was suddenly on the inactive list after tweaking his calf before the game. His replacement was the usual starter at right tackle, Lucas Niang — but Niang ruptured his Achilles early in the game.

It was up to left guard Joe Thuney to slide out and block edge rusher Trey Hendrickson — who has 15 sacks this season so far. Thuney did a great job neutralizing Hendrickson's effect, holding him to zero sacks.

As funny as it may sound, it actually was a good matchup for Thuney, in terms of Hendrickson's play style. He's going to win with speed and bend around the edge, which Thuney's guard-physique can match. It will be a lot more difficult for Brown to counter the strengths of Hendrickson.

Watch to see who gets the best of who in that individual battle; it might be wise for the Chiefs to focus on slowing Hendrickson down with chip help or tight ends aligned to that side.

5. The running back rotation

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I don't remember a Chiefs' running back group being as much a carousel as this season's unit is.

After it appeared veteran Darrel Williams had solidified himself as the primary option, Jerick McKinnon exploded onto the scene in the Wild Card round. Then, Clyde Edwards-Helaire made his triumphant return against the Bills; he had two runs of over 20 yards, and his explosion looked as good as we've ever seen it.

So it feels like any of the backs — even Derrick Gore — could have a big day and end up with the most total yards of the group. Even though the Bengals have been stout against the run, the Chiefs gained 155 yards against them in Week 17 — the second-highest allowed mark of the season.

McKinnon got most of the snaps last week, but don't be surprised if that changes this week.