In this year’s AFC Championship, we’re getting Episode 4 of a very intriguing series: an always-competitive battle between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals.
With three previous matchups coming within the last 13 months, everyone involved has a high level of familiarity with each other. Fans are even getting to know the opposing teams’ players and strategies.
This fourth game has the biggest stakes. Let’s look at five statistics that help tell the story of this newfound rivalry:
1. Joe Burrow has been sacked twice over the last two matchups
Over the 78 dropbacks that Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow has taken over the last two matchups against Kansas City, he has been brought down only twice — once in each game. In those contests, the Chiefs pressured him 25 times — but Burrow turned those pressures into nine first-down conversions while completing 61% of his throws.
The last two games were a departure from the first game in this series, in which Burrow was sacked four times. At that time, one of Burrow’s weaknesses was a contributing factor: he was willing to hold the ball longer than a lot of quarterbacks.
Since then, Burrow has improved in that area; he’s getting rid of the ball faster and helping his pass protection. But in the last matchup, the Bengals overcommitted to stopping defensive tackle Chris Jones by double-teaming him on nearly every pass-rushing snap.
Since then, Cincinnati’s offensive line has been impacted by injuries — and Burrow’s quick releases can only mask so much. Kansas City’s pass-rushing production will be a key factor on Sunday.
2. Chiefs’ running backs gained more than 100 yards in all three losses
It hasn’t mattered which Kansas City running back was getting the ball. In the last three games against Cincinnati, running backs have averaged at least 5.3 yards per carry, seeing 17 or more carries in each matchup.
It’s a reminder that the Chiefs’ offense has not had trouble having an efficient ground game against the Bengals — even in these recent losses. It’s allowed Kansas City to be successful on early downs, avoiding third-and-longs by earning good chunks on first down.
While passing downs have tripped up the offense against Cincinnati, the ground game has worked. For the offense to stay in rhythm on Sunday, the Chiefs will need for this to continue.
3. Most of Semaje Perine’s Week 13 rushing yards were after contact
In the last matchup, the Bengals were missing starting running back Joe Mixon — but watching the game, you probably wouldn't have noticed.
Secondary back Samaje Perine had a career day, gaining 106 yards rushing (65 of those after contact) and totaling 155 yards on 27 touches. He consistently turned handoffs and checkdowns into positive plays.
But the most vivid memory of Perine’s performance was how poorly the Chiefs tackled him; lackluster attempts appeared to be the order of the day. It led to many yards after contact — and two missed tackles on receptions. Perine moved the chains seven times — and it felt like he earned extra yards on every one of them.
In Sunday’s AFC title game, Kansas City’s tackling effort must improve.
4. Against Cincinnati, Patrick Mahomes’ downfield throws have been ineffective
The Bengals’ coverage scheme has given Mahomes fits on downfield throws. Per PFF, the Chiefs’ quarterback has completed just 50% of his throws of 10 air yards or more in the last three games against them. The most memorable was in overtime of last year’s AFC Championship, where a tight-window throw was batted up and intercepted.
This is not to say he shouldn’t be looking for those big plays — Kansas City converted some, too — but the variability of the Cincinnati pass defense makes them hard to predict or anticipate. While its effectiveness at disguising coverage before the snap has contributed to throwing Mahomes off, there is a simple answer.
Offensive play-calls — and Mahomes — need to focus on taking what is given, trusting the team’s playmakers to turn quick catches into bigger plays. Against the Bengals, intermediate and deep targets are simply harder to get — especially when their three or four-man pass rushes can create pressure.
5. In Week 13, Joe Burrow was unstoppable in the middle of the field.
While operating from a pretty clean pocket in Week 13, Burrow had all the time in the world to pick apart the middle of the Chiefs’ pass coverage. Linebackers Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. were frequently left in no man’s land — and failed to get in the way of the throwing windows. Burrrow completed 13 of his 14 pass attempts between the numbers.
Getting more pressure on Burrow will help solve this problem. But it will also take better playmaking from those linebackers — plus safeties Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill. As the middle of the field becomes less available, Burrow’s throws will become more difficult — even if he and his receivers make contested catches look easy.
In fact, since the terrible pass defense Kansas City displayed in the first matchup of this series, the team’s cornerbacks have done an admirable job of limiting explosive plays down the sideline. In the last two matchups, Burrow has attempted seven outside-the-numbers throws of 20 or more air yards — but has completed just one of them.