It (almost) goes without saying that Sunday’s matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship is one of the biggest, most consequential (and least certain) games of the Patrick Mahomes era.
If Kansas City wins, everything is on the table. Records can be broken. AFC dominance can be established. A case can be made for a potential dynasty. Multiple Hall of Fame legacies could be cemented.
And oh, yes... a victory would also shut down some of the talk about (and by) these Bengals and their cocky quarterback Joe Burrow.
Losing this game, however, would be a huge setback for all of those goals — not to mention an abrupt end to a shouldn’t-have-been-surprising Chiefs season.
But a win will require getting past a team that has been able to squeak out wins in three straight games — the worst of which was last season’s AFC title game on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. What’s going to be different this time?
Here are just some of the Chiefs who might make a difference.
Wide receiver Kadarius Toney: Before last Saturday’s Divisional Round game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, we talked about how the Chiefs’ newest wideout could be the team’s best receiver in the playoffs — and maybe into the future. He responded by leading Kansas City wide receivers in targets (7), receptions (5) and yards (36) — and adding a 14-yard run — to give just a glimpse of his versatility and shiftiness in the team’s 27-20 win over the Jaguars. Toney wasn’t on the field for the Week 13 matchup between these two teams in December — but he could be one of the biggest keys to Sunday’s game. Mahomes is going to need someone who can get open for quick passes — someone who can also make guys miss in space for extra yardage. Toney could be just the threat the Kansas City offense needs to counter what the Cincinnati defense might throw at them. Don’t be surprised if he once again leads the team in targets — and if some of them are deep downfield. Toney is just scratching the surface of what he can do.
The Chiefs’ offensive line: After suffering a high ankle sprain last Saturday, quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ mobility will be limited; he’ll likely stay in the pocket more often than we usually see. And it’s possible the Chiefs could be preparing to run the ball more often than in their previous matchups against the Bengals. Both of those plans will rely on the big guys up front. When Mahomes was hurt in the first quarter of Saturday’s game, the line managed to keep him from being sacked — and cleared the way for 144 rushing yards at 4.8 yards per carry. In fact, Kansas City hasn’t allowed more than two sacks in a game since Week 9 against the Tennessee Titans. In the last meeting with Cincinnati, the Chiefs ran the ball well (25 carries for 138 yards and two scores). They’ll need that — and more — this time. I’m bullish on the Chiefs' offensive front — and their ability to win against the Bengals. If they deliver, they might very well punch their ticket to Glendale, Arizona in February.
Safety Juan Thornhill: Kansas City’s defensive backs might be the most improved group on this team. That’s true not only compared to 2021, but also to earlier this season. The rookie corners are coming along nicely — and the team is finding the right combinations of players on the back end. The safeties are starting to make more plays on the ball. This allows defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to call more creative blitzes and coverages. In Sunday’s game, the entire group (and staff) will be tested in new ways. Cincinnati’s big, fast receivers generally can’t be defended one-on-one. Even when there is good coverage, Burrow has a way of quickly getting the ball to the perfect spot for them. So it will be up to the safeties — especially Thornhill — to help break up downfield passes while also being available to tackle short of the sticks. Against Jacksonville, Thornhill made some spectacular pass breakups that helped erase big plays. For the Chiefs to contain the Bengals’ passing game — and potentially steal a possession by forcing a turnover — he’ll need to be in top form.
Others trending in the right direction: safety Bryan Cook, running back Isiah Pacheco, tight end Travis Kelce, defensive tackle Chris Jones, defensive end Frank Clark, cornerback Jaylen Watson and quarterback Chad Henne.
Linebackers Willie Gay, Jr. and Nick Bolton: The Bengals love to attack the middle of the field against the Chiefs, where the linebackers and safeties are forced into coverage situations that may be bad matchups for them. Kansas City’s two top linebackers have been inconsistent in coverage this season. Sometimes, both have been playmakers — tipping passes and pulling down big interceptions — but too often, they have been left guessing (and exploited) in the middle of the field. Over the long term, we’re still bullish on these guys — but the matchup this week is a tough one; they will be tested. Can they surprise us?
Kansas City’s kick coverage units: In the Divisional Round, Jacksonville’s Jamal Agnew burned special teams coordinator Dave Toub’s coverage for a 63-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown drive — plus a 42-yard return that required placekicker Harrison Butker to make a desperate tackle to avoid a return touchdown. Then general manager Brett Veach waived Chris Lammons — one of the Chiefs' best special teams players — with the likely hope that he would clear waivers and return to the practice squad. Unfortunately, Cincinnati claimed Lammons, ensuring that he won’t be able to play for either team on Sunday or in the Super Bowl. We have to hope that against Cincinnati, Toub has a plan to close up some return lanes — or put every kickoff out of the end zone. It’s going to be a close game — and the Kansas City defense has struggled to stop teams with a short field. Every yard of field position will count.
Others trending in the wrong direction: wide receivers Skyy Moore and Marquez Valdes-Scantling and cornerback Joshua Williams.
Value (sleeper) pick: wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster
It might seem really strange to see the Chiefs' No. 1 wide receiver on the sleepers list. Unfortunately, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s last substantial game was against the Houston Texans in Week 14 — in which he had 10 catches for 88 yards, but also lost a fumble. His last 100-yard game was in Week 7 against the San Francisco 49ers. He’s averaged 28 yards per game over his last four contests — with a high of only three catches. So the team’s top receiver is a bit of a forgotten man — but this matchup against Cincinnati might put him back in the spotlight. Mahomes will need reliable outlet receivers in the short and intermediate parts of the field that can make tough catches in traffic; he’ll need someone to move the chains when the Bengals try to take Kelce away. Smith-Schuster might just come up big, reminding everyone why he was on pace for more than 1,000 yards prior to his Week 10 concussion. If the Chiefs return to the Super Bowl, they’ll do it by getting big performances from their receivers — not only the upstart Toney, but also the steadfast Smith-Schuster.