It’s become clear and obvious that we are in for a passionate fight between the Kansas City Chiefs (9-2) and Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) on Sunday afternoon. The battle will start at 3:25 p.m Arrowhead Time inside Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Chiefs entered the weekend as 1.5-point favorites, according to DraftKings SportsBook.
The Bengals not only upset the Chiefs in the AFC Title Game, but they also spoiled the Chiefs’ shot at the No. I overall seed — which would have given them the bye week. If the double revenge wasn’t enough motivation, Chiefs safety Justin Reid sparked some back and forth between the teams with some words about Bengals’ pass catchers.
A win may set up Kansas City to coast to the top seed, but a loss opens the door for other AFC contenders to claim the throne.
Here are five things to watch in the matchup:
1. The difference new receiving options make
Last time Mahomes played Cincinnati, he looked as uncomfortable and unconfident as we’ve ever seen the superstar appear. One of the easiest ways to see the lack of comfort was his hesitation to make tight-window throws against the Bengals’ eight-man coverage.
When Cincinnati funneled their loaded coverage to take away tight end Travis Kelce or wide receiver Tyreek Hill, Mahomes didn’t appear to feel good about any backup plan. It’s a big factor in why he took four sacks. When he did target wide receivers Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson (six times), he totaled only 16 yards on two catches.
I see Mahomes feeling better about his secondary options this time around, giving him the confidence to fire into small windows and overcome tight coverage. Wide receivers Skyy Moore and Justin Watson have earned Mahomes’ trust as of late; that can help the pass offense stay in rhythm and avoid coverage sacks.
2. An enormous test for the Chiefs’ young cornerbacks
Since first-round rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie returned from injury, the Chiefs’ young cornerback room has been tested by a couple efficient pass attacks: the Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Chargers. Neither of those teams present the big-play threat that Cincinnati does, however — and Kansas City knows that from first-hand experience.
Last year, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase racked up 266 yards and three scores by torching the Chiefs’ back end in the first matchup; 151 of those yards came after the catch. On top of that, he and wide receiver Tee Higgins combined for five contested catches, per PFF; they won on jump balls against Kansas City cornerbacks.
McDuffie’s stickiness in coverage will be tested — not giving Chase enough space to turn a regular completion into a game-breaking play. When those two are matched up, it’ll leave Higgins with the bigger cornerbacks in L’Jarius Sneed and rookie Joshua Williams. Williams’ talent in press coverage and at the catch point will be put to its greatest test yet.
The X-factor may be slot receiver Tyler Boyd; his play style has given Sneed fits at times this year — like wide receiver Christian Kirk did in the Jaguars game.
3. Utilizing the run game
The Chiefs’ ground game has gained momentum since rookie running back Isiah Pacheco took the starting role. The young back is averaging 4.7 yards per carry this season, the most any primary running back in Kansas City has averaged since Kareem Hunt’s rookie year in 2017.
He should continue to play a key role in keeping the offense in rhythm, like the ground game did in the first half of last year’s playoff battle. After the backfield averaged 5.9 yards per carry in the first half, Kansas City got away from it in the second — even with a two-score lead out of intermission.
The Bengals’ front is more stout than they are penetrative, but the Chiefs can spread them out and find rush lanes. It’s whether or not the coaching staff will trust it, especially if Kansas City gets out to a lead.
4. Getting to Joe Burrow
As you may recall, the Chiefs somehow only sacked Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow once in the last matchup — despite pressuring him on 40% of his dropbacks. In their previous game, Cincinnati allowed nine sacks.
That was an outlier for Burrow; he does have underrated mobility, but Burrow does succumb to sacks often. This year, 27% of pressure on him turns into a sack — the third-highest among starting quarterbacks. Their offensive line added better players in theory, but the statistical results haven’t been that different: the Bengals have allowed the fifth-most sacks in the NFL.
Not only is someone like Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones motivated to redeem his missed plays, he has a better supporting cast to get the job done. Kansas City has the NFL’s fifth-most sacks, plus the third-highest team pressure rate. Rookie defensive end George Karlaftis improves the group’s finishing effort, but he and defensive end Carlos Dunlap are also both in the top four of all NFL defenders in batted passes.
Burrow has had the second-most passes batted down among all NFL quarterbacks this year. They’ll look for more sacks, but batted passes have the same result on a third down.
5. Backing up the talk
Whether or not safety Justin Reid messed up the name of which Bengals’ pass catcher he said he would “lock up,” he still gave Cincinnati bulletin-board material; Sunday is the time to back it up.
It’s a big opportunity for Reid, who was billed as the replacement for two-time All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu. He has the diplomacy of a veteran leader, but that hasn’t come through in his on-field production: he has yet to force a turnover this season, with no tackles for loss and only two passes defended. He is the team’s fourth-leading tackler.
A safety’s impact may not show up in the box score at times, but Mathieu’s did. Even fellow starting safety Juan Thornhill has nabbed a pick and defended six passes. Reid’s words, combined with the threat of the opposing pass attack, make this a great chance for Reid to have a signature performance.