What is it about these matchups between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals that makes them all turn out essentially the same way? Kansas City dropped its third game of the season in all-too-familiar fashion on Sunday afternoon, losing 27-24 in Cincinnati.
In a game of inches, it came down to a handful of mistakes made by the Chiefs. A bunch of missed tackles, Travis Kelce’s fumble, Harrison Butker’s miss, Patrick Mahomes taking a sack... each time, the Bengals were able to take advantage. In the end, we were deprived of a classic Mahomes comeback victory by the same three-man pass rushing, precision-passing opponent that beat Kansas City twice to end last season.
In Sunday’s frustrating defeat, there was plenty of blame to go around. Here are a few who stood out.
Note: Applying the labels “winners” and “losers” is not intended to be a judgment on the talent or character of any of these players. It’s just a simple way to grade their performance in a single game. No disrespect is intended.
Running backs Jerick McKinnon and Isiah Pacheco: The running game was a bright spot against the Bengals. Both backs were over 50 yards on the day, exploding though the line of scrimmage and getting chunks of yardage — and in the first half, both found their way to the end zone. McKinnon caught Mahomes’s only touchdown pass, while Pacheco scored on third down, running through the teeth of the Cincinnati defense. While it didn’t happen often enough, they did demonstrate they could sustain long drives as they punished the Bengals for light boxes.
EDGE Carlos Dunlap: The pass rush wasn’t great on Sunday, but Dunlap made a play that could have altered the course of the game. Facing fourth-and-1 from inside the five-yard line, the Bengals could have run another quarterback sneak and converted. It seemed inevitable. But instead, they tried a handoff. Dunlap exploded through the line to make a tackle for loss — giving the ball back to Kansas City.
Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster: With six minutes left in the first half, the Chiefs were down 14-3, facing fourth-and-4. Mahomes hit Smith-Schuster at the line of scrimmage. With one man to beat, the wideout found a way to do just that. Driving through a tackler and diving forward for a first down, he set up a huge touchdown that kept Kansas City in the game. This is the kind of play that shows why the Chiefs brought Smith-Schuster in — and why we hope he’s back again next year. His box scores won’t wow anyone, but he continues to make tough, contested plays when the team has to move the chains.
Cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Joshua Williams: There will be plenty of blame to pass around on Chiefs’ defense, but it shouldn’t be directed at these two rookie corners. They stuck with the elite receivers on the Cincinnati offense, always in the right position to make a play. The Bengals didn’t have a 100-yard receiver — and only Higgins was able to get into the end zone, catching a contested pass and breaking multiple tackles. The future is bright for Kansas City’s young secondary.
Safety Justin Reid: It wasn’t just Reid, but tackling issues were a big factor in the loss — and when he had a shot, No. 20 was certainly struggling to bring down the Bengals’ skill players. He was also late or out of position when the corners needed help over the top — especially in the final drive, when the defense had to get a stop. Reid also wasn’t able to get home when blitzing. Instead, he seemed to dance with the offensive tackles instead of just running past them. When you talk during the week, you’d better back it up on Sunday. Reid didn’t.
Safety Juan Thornhill, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed and linebacker Nick Bolton: All three of these guys were also part of the tackling problem. They failed to wrap up ball carriers or grabbed ankles — which allowed additional yardage. But these are also the guys we’d count on for big defensive plays. When Cincinnati was driving — especially late in the game — the Chiefs needed someone to get an interception, a forced fumble or a sack on a blitz. They didn’t come through. Instead, they — and the rest of the defense — looked like passive victims of an opponent that couldn’t be stopped. In order to win in the postseason, these three guys will have to make big plays.
Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling: It’s the same old story. He made the longest reception of the day, but also dropped a couple of others that he should have brought in. Valdes-Scantling led the team in receiving yards, but was the least efficient: he caught only two of his six targets for 71 total yards.
Offensive tackles Orlando Brown and Andrew Wylie: This one is pretty simple — but it’s not easy to fix. Cincinnati has a formula to beat the Kansas City offense. Much of it is centered around the defensive line’s ability to beat the Chiefs up front. When the Bengals drop eight into coverage, they cannot be allowed to get instant pressure on Mahomes. Simple math would indicate that the Chiefs could double-team all three guys (or use two doubles and a chip) to give Mahomes time to find the open man. But on Sunday — in the biggest spots — that didn’t happen. Quick losses by Brown or Wylie doomed more than one drive — including the game’s final offensive play.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes: The MVP did go Superman in a fourth-down touchdown run — but that mindset might also have been his downfall. Mahomes wasn’t bad on Sunday, — but in the film room, he will absolutely be kicking himself when he sees what he left on the field. When the Chiefs needed to move the chains, Mahomes was often under pressure. He would opt for a lower-percentage shot deep downfield instead of checking down. On the final offensive play of the game, Brown was beaten instantly. Mahomes had — and saw — running back Jerick McKinnon in the flat for a first down. But he hesitated, tried to make a big play and was brought down short of the chains. That forced a long field goal attempt. Mahomes made some big throws, but the difference between him and Joe Burrow was that the Bengals’ quarterback was quick and decisive at getting the ball out before pressure arrived. More often than not, Mahomes hesitated just a beat too long. Sometimes, getting the first down makes you a hero, too.
Kicker Harrison Butker: Speaking of the long field goal attempt, Kansas City’s placekicker just missed the game-tying try. It was 55 yards — which is a stretch for most NFL kickers. But we’ve been saying all season that Butker missing kicks could come back to haunt the team in a close game. Now that’s happened.
Head coach Andy Reid: In the biggest game that remained on their schedule, it didn’t look like the Chiefs were ready to execute. The tackling on defense was terrible — and the offense didn’t have answers against the same defense that gave them fits last season. There were also a couple of decisions that we can second-guess. At the end of the first half, the Chiefs got a stop. Reid elected to keep it on the ground and run out the clock. This left many of us wondering what would have happened if Mahomes had been given a couple of shots to get into field goal range. Then — after a long drive that drained five minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter — Mahomes was sacked. Reid elected to kick a 55-yard field goal to tie the game. Unfortunately, Butker missed — and once again, we were left wondering, “What if?” Even if Butker hits that kick, you’re relying on your defense to do what they rarely did on Sunday: get a stop. With three minutes left, giving the ball back to the Bengals with the score tied is just as bad as being three points down.