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4 Chiefs who could demonstrate their worth in Sunday’s AFC Championship

These players could be on the roster bubble in 2023 — and with big performances, could improve their chance to stay.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

If the Kansas City Chiefs are going to stop the Cincinnati Bengals from appearing in back-to-back Super Bowls, it’s going to take a team effort during Sunday’s AFC Championship game — but for the Chiefs, this might be out of the ordinary.

This entire 2022 season has been about Kansas City heavily relying on its three superstars. To their credit, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, tight Travis Kelce and defensive tackle Chris Jones have answered the call. All three have turned in amazing seasons.

But it’s going to take more than just the three of them to get the team to Glendale, Arizona in February.

Even if Mahomes was fully healthy, beating the Bengals would be a challenge; the team has lost three straight to Cincinnati — including the AFC title matchup one year ago. But with Mahomes nursing a high ankle sprain, the challenge becomes even greater.

On Sunday, the Chiefs are going to have to carry their quarterback — instead of the other way around. While the whole roster will play a part, there are some key players who will absolutely need to step up. As it happens, most of them also have an uncertain future in Kansas City.

Let’s take a look at four players whose performances on Sunday could play a significant role in determining whether they will wear red and gold in 2023.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

The former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver’s role in Kansas City has been curious. Many believed the team’s wide receivers would start off slow in 2022 as they developed familiarity with the offense and rapport with Mahomes. So it wasn’t until Week 6 that he posted the first of two back-to-back 100-yard games — each with a touchdown. He followed that up with another solid performance against the Tennessee Titans — but then he was injured in the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars game, which sidelined him for two weeks. Since coming back from that injury, Smith-Schuster hasn’t really had a big game — and has scored just one touchdown.

If Smith-Schuster wants to stay in Kansas City — or get paid like a top receiver — he needs to have a big game in the postseason. After only two catches for 29 yards against a bad Jacksonville Jaguars secondary, it’s time for him to step up and get open against a good-but-not-great secondary. Cincinnati is not going to let Kelce run free — which means every other pass-catcher needs to win their one-on-one matchups.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling

Many of the same factors apply to the former Green Bay Packers wideout. Valdes-Scantling — like all of Kansas City’s receivers — needs to step up in Sunday’s game. But he is also one of the few players who had a strong game against the Bengals in Week 13; he was able to find some holes in the deep portion of the field, grabbing two big catches for 71 yards. Valdes-Scantling definitely has game-breaking speed — but all year, it has felt like he and Mahomes have never really hit on a deep touchdown play. In a close game — like Sunday’s matchup is expected to be — an explosive play like that could make all the difference.

The Chiefs could easily move on from Valdes-Scantling’s contract in 2023 — and it will be even easier the following year. Kansas City could save $9 million in cap space by releasing him this spring. Given the returns the team has had on the deal, it’s easy to think the Chiefs could move on. The biggest thing in his favor is that with Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman scheduled to be free agents, Valdes-Scantling could be the guy providing a veteran presence in the room. But a big performance to seal a Super Bowl appearance would certainly help his case.

Juan Thornhill

In Week 13’s game against Cincinnati, the entire Chiefs defense turned in one of its worst tackling performances of the season. But you might need to take off both socks to count the number of missed tackles that the fourth-year safety collected. Without star running back Joe Mixon and tight end Hayden Hurst, the Bengals repeatedly targeted Thornhill in the middle of the field.

Cincinnati is patient. The team will run the same concept over and over until the opposing defense displays the ability to shut it down. There’s no doubt about it: the Bengals will go right back to the well. For the defense to have a chance, Thornhill must cover the intermediate and deep portions of the field — and will need to tackle well.

While Thornhill will be a free agent this offseason, the Chiefs also have a need at safety. If there’s any chance for him to return, this would be a great time to show he has earned the chance to return.

Orlando Brown Jr.

Because he’s been playing on the franchise tag this season, you could probably say this for every single game he’s played in 2022 — but on Sunday, the left tackle really needs to step up. It’s possible that no game will be more important to Brown’s future than this matchup with the Bengals. In previous games against them — even when they were only rushing three against the Kansas City line — Brown struggled.

Even worse, some his early struggles in the Divisional Round game may have led to the pressure that injured Mahomes. Any tackle in the league is capable of giving up a play where the team’s quarterback is injured — but it sure didn’t help that it was Brown’s man who fell on Kansas City’s most important right ankle. He did improve throughout the game — the offensive line did not allow a sack — but the spotlight is definitely shining on Brown

If Brown wants to get paid — to be recognized as one of the best tackles in the game — he needs to show up Sunday. But it won’t be easy. Mahomes is a quarterback whose mobility and vision can elevate the play of an offensive line. On Sunday, however, that is not likely to happen. Brown is also billed as an elite run blocker. With Mahomes injured, there’s no doubt that the Chiefs will need to run the ball.

If Brown can keep that No. 15 jersey clean, he could begin a strong finish to his season. But if he falls flat, he could easily cost himself guaranteed dollars — and a future in Kansas City.

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