The Kansas City Chiefs will travel to face the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday in what has become one of this NFL season's most anticipated games. The teams last saw each other in January's AFC Championship game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead — in which the underdog Bengals defeated the Chiefs to advance to Super Bowl LVI.
The hyperbole surrounding the rematch is in full force, with Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd comparing matchups between Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Bengals passer Joe Burrow to one of the most famous rivalries in sports history.
Mahomes on Wednesday acknowledged Burrow as a worthy competitor — but stopped short of Boyd's notion they compare to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
"I have a ton of respect for Joe," the league leader in passing yards said before practice on Wednesday. "I hate to compare it to Brady and Manning because they've won so much and put up so many stats — and I feel like that's something that you do at the end of your career when they look back and see all the success that you had.
"I know that I'm going to play this guy for a long time. He's a great competitor, so he's going to be on a great football team for a long time and then we're going to have games like this. I just try to go out there and win the week — and I know he does the same. We'll see what happens at the end of the week — and you move on to the next."
Following the Chiefs' 26-10 victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, Mahomes spoke introspectively about the playoff loss to Cincinnati. On Wednesday, however, he appeared to dial back on this weekend's game having any extra meaning beyond what it might mean to Kansas City's prospects for this year's playoffs.
"I don't know if it means more," Mahomes stated. "I think you've got to keep things in perspective: it's a brand-new football season. Obviously, anytime somebody beats you the year before, you want to beat them — especially in a game like they beat us in to go to the Super Bowl.
"We understand it's a great football team that's playing great football right now. So, we'll go out there and put our effort forward and play our best football and try to get that win — because it's a big win in the season to try to hold that number one seed and win our division."
While the focus is on two of the league's top quarterbacks, the Cincinnati defense came up huge in the second half both in the playoff game and in a Week 17 contest. Mahomes and the Chiefs' offense were held to only three second-half points in both meetings.
The face of the NFL expects them to be a continued challenge.
"It's a really good entire unit of defense," Mahomes declared. "They're well coached, they have good players at every level, and they've played together now for a long time. They do a great job of passing off stuff in zone coverages and man coverages and knowing where the other guy is to help.
"So, they're a well-coached unit. We know it's a great challenge for us, and we're just going go out there and try to execute at a high level. It'll probably be a lot of tight window throws and guys are going to have to make plays and that's what happens when you play a great football team. It's going to be a tightly contested game."
The Bengals frustrated Mahomes last season by frequently dropping eight players in coverage. The quarterback does not see a need to focus heavily on their successful game plan.
"We work on all different type of coverages," Mahomes countered, "and it wasn't like they did anything that was that much different from the first half than they did in the second half. They played a little bit more man-coverage than they did in the first half. They made some adjustments of trying to be in the right spots.
"I trust that our guys are going to win against man-coverage — and if I can execute and throw the ball in the right spot, we'll find ways to have success. So just kind of like I said, getting back to the fundamentals and getting back to who I am."
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid agreed with his quarterback that — given the changing nature of teams — the Bengals will likely throw new wrinkles rather than bring the same game-plan
"They played [that defense] the first half too," Reid recalled when speaking before Wednesday's practice, "but they did a good job with it. They dropped eight and played man-coverage and had a thief player rolling around in there and they executed well — better than how we did. We didn't do very well with it. So, they got us. But we've worked on it. I'm sure they've worked on new things, and we'll see how it goes."
For Mahomes, Sunday's game will be an opportunity for both teams to show what they have learned over the offseason — and Sunday's victor likely will be the team that has adjusted better.
"Now with all these young quarterbacks from the league," he observed, "you start playing the same teams. So you learn from it: you make adjustments, they make adjustments, and then you go out there and make adjustments on the field. It's a great challenge for both teams — and I'm excited for it."