Here are five things we learned.
1. Kansas City’s bye week status is back to unlikely
This season has been a roller coaster for the Chiefs. After a 27-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 7, Kansas City fell to 3-4 on the season — and their chances of securing the top seed in the AFC looked slim. Then the Chiefs rattled off eight consecutive wins — placing them a game up on the rest of the conference and in the driver’s seat for the top seed. But after falling to the Bengals on Sunday, we can almost wave goodbye to the bye week.
With one game remaining in the regular season, ESPN’s Football Power Index says the Titans have a 76% chance to finish with the top seed. The Chiefs have a 17% chance to reclaim it. Tennessee will finish their season on the road against the Houston Texans, while Kansas City will travel to Empower Field at Mile High to face the Denver Broncos. In the NFL — especially this season — stranger things have happened than a sporadically feisty Texans team knocking off a divisional foe, but the Chiefs shouldn’t hold their breath.
The second-half shutout Kansas City’s defense pitched against the Titans in Week 7 is largely viewed as the turnaround point in their season. Now, they very well may have to return to Nashville to prove they can finish what they started.
2. The AFC’s margin for error is shrinking
After the Chiefs narrowly squeaked out an overtime win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 15, I wrote that the margin for error in the AFC West was shrinking. After Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, it looks like the margin for error in the entire AFC is shrinking.
Many fans thought the media was overhyping Cincinnati’s skill players after they exploded for 575 yards of offense against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16. But the Bengals continued their dominant play against the Chiefs on Sunday. Quarterback Joe Burrow was 30-39 for 446 yards and four touchdowns. He has 971 yards and eight touchdowns in the last two weeks. Ja’Marr Chase caught 11 of his 12 targets for 266 yards and three touchdowns — a new single-game record for rookie receiving yards. A few times, blown coverages by the Chiefs gifted Burrow and Chase chunk yards. However, over the course of the game, the dynamic duo earned every bit of their hype — repeatedly connecting on contested receptions for game-tilting plays.
When you add Joe Mixon, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and C.J. Uzomah to the mix, the Bengals have a young core of skill players who have the talent to go blow-for-blow with the Chiefs. While I’d still take Kansas City’s proven playmakers over anyone in the conference, it’s clear that the AFC is in an arms race. To stay on top, the Chiefs will need to stay sharp from the front office on down. A growing list of contenders is champing at the bit to take their place.
3. ‘The little things’ still lurk as issues for the Chiefs
The officiating on Sunday was...interesting. But a handful of controversial (and missed) calls was only one of Kansas City’s problems. Similar to their early-season losses, the Chiefs missed several open-field tackles, blew coverages that led to momentum-shifting plays and had a few untimely dropped passes that prevented big plays of their own.
After weeks of improved play, Daniel Sorensen returned to early-season form — blowing an assignment that resulted in a 69-yard touchdown for Chase. Another blown coverage allowed Burrow to hit a wide-open Boyd to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
On offense, a drop by Tyreek Hill prevented a 64-yard play (and a potential scoring opportunity) at the end of the first half. Another by Travis Kelce in the third quarter led to a Kansas City punt. Even Patrick Mahomes — who looked sharp and made plays most of the afternoon — threw two turnover-worthy passes.
In my game prediction, I wrote that the Chiefs would win because they’d patched their holes with each passing week — while the Bengals still had a few glaring ones. The opposite proved to be true. The Bengals managed to overcome their issues along their offensive line and their struggles to defend tight ends. The Chiefs, on the other hand, took a step backward to the sloppy play that defined their early-season struggles.
After suffering just a single loss (to a formidable opponent) in their last nine games, Kansas City is far from finished — but these late-season missteps are uncharacteristic of a team coached by Andy Reid and quarterbacked by Mahomes. In order to head into the playoffs with momentum, they’ll need to put forth a much cleaner effort against Denver.
4. One big problem overshadowed the rest
For weeks, Kansas City’s cornerbacks have looked like a strength of the team — but all afternoon, Burrow, Chase and their teammates torched the Chiefs. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Cincinnati quarterback accumulated 361 yards outside the numbers — the most since the service began keeping track in 2016.
Chase repeatedly went over the top of Kansas City cornerbacks to haul in big-time catches down the sideline — and Cincinnati's receiving corps drew three costly defensive pass interference calls on the Chiefs’ secondary. As a result, Burrow increasingly gained confidence throwing the ball early in his progression into tight windows on the outside.
The continued success the Bengals saw with this strategy counteracted the huge advantage the Chiefs had in the trenches. Kansas City defenders hit Burrow 10 times and tallied four sacks in the game. Yet despite consistently winning their assignments, The Chiefs’ defensive line had a diminishing impact down the stretch. As quick as Chris Jones was shooting through the gap, Burrow was even quicker throwing alley-oops to Chase.
“Everyone knows that meme,” Burrow said after the game. “F it. Ja’Marr’s [Chase] down there somewhere. I’m going to just throw it up to him. He’s going to make a play.”
There’s reason to believe Kansas City’s struggles outside the numbers are not a major reason for concern. The Chiefs’ cornerbacks were on the wrong end of a few questionable calls — and Sunday’s Burrow-to-Chase connection would have caused problems for most teams.
Still, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnulo needs to be prepared to adjust to teams testing the Chiefs on the outside. Despite the dominance of the Bengals’ receivers, Spagnuolo opted to keep his defensive backs one-on-one against them — which proved to be a mistake. As the game wore on, the success of Cincinnati’s jump-ball offense became almost comical. After the Chiefs would disrupt Burrow on multiple downs, he could toss up a ball on third-and-long and depend on getting the first down. On Cincinnati’s game-winning drive, the Chiefs forced a third-and-27 attempt from the Kansas City 41-yard line. Spagnuolo brought pressure and watched Burrow flip a pass up to Chase — who was one-on-one with Charvarius Ward — for a gain of 30 yards to the Chiefs’ 11-yard line.
The Chiefs could face the Bengals again in the playoffs — and the Titans also have the physicality to test Kansas City on the outside. To keep their Super Bowl hopes alive, the Chiefs will need to be ready for the challenge.
5. The offensive line depth is paying off
On Sunday, Kansas City’s offensive line was one of its biggest bright spots. With Orlando Brown Jr. going down with a calf injury during warm-ups — and his replacement Lucas Niang exiting the game early in the first quarter with a knee injury — the Chiefs slid Joe Thuney to left tackle and had Nick Allegretti fill in at left guard. Reserve lineman Andrew Wylie continued to start at right tackle next to right guard Trey Smith and center Creed Humphrey.
The makeshift unit did not allow a sack against the Bengals. Thuney was especially impressive on the outside. Drawing a matchup with Trey Hendrickson — whose 14 sacks rank fifth in the NFL — he played tough all afternoon, removing Hendrickson from multiple plays.
But the Chiefs’ offensive line didn’t stop there; all afternoon, it carved out lanes for running back Darrel Williams. Against a Bengals defense that entered the game giving up the league’s fourth-fewest rushing yards and seventh-lowest yards-per-carry, the Chiefs ran for 155 yards — averaging 6.7 yards per attempt. Williams accounted for 88 of those yards and two touchdowns. Throughout the game, he ran downhill for plus yardage — and behind the offensive line’s push, repeatedly converted on short-yardage situations.
Despite the disappointing loss, the performance of the offensive line is a testament to the growth and versatility of this team. If the Chiefs make a third-straight Super Bowl appearance, their strength in the trenches will be one of the reasons why.