With one game in between them and a trip to the Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs have begun to prepare for their AFC Championship game rematch against the Cincinnati Bengals.
This is a familiar matchup for the Chiefs, having played the Bengals three times over the past calendar year, including a 27-24 loss earlier this season. The frequency at which these teams have played gives them both a familiarity with each other’s game, similar to that of a divisional rival — according to Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.
“It really is,” Burrow told reporters when asked if he would compare Sunday’s matchup to a division rivalry game. “We played them twice the last two seasons and basically a month apart each time, so we know them and they know us. It’s going to be a fun one.”
The greatest difference between Sunday’s matchup and their previous game this season is that this one will be held at Arrowhead. The Chiefs home-field advantage is well known in the league, combining the elements of cold weather with deafening crowd noise.
Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor acknowledged this challenge ahead of Sunday’s game.
“You know Arrowhead is one of the toughest environments to play in,” Taylor told reporters on Wednesday. “I thought last week was tough — it was a great environment, [Buffalo’s] fans were into it — same thing in Kansas City. It’s a fun atmosphere to play in if you’re part of the NFL, and so our guys look forward to it.”
Kansas City has recently struggled to beat Cincinnati. The Chiefs will have to bring something new to the table this time around, as Burrow has proven to have their number — winning all three of their past matchups, each by a margin of three points.
“We’ve played them a bunch,” Burrow said. “I’m sure they’re going to have some wrinkles off of things that they’ve shown us in the past — whether it was last game or the playoffs last year. We know that they’re going to be studying all three of these games just like we are, so you’re going to be ready for anything.”
The Chiefs' defense will have to be at the top of its game to slow down Burrow and the Bengal’s talented offense. To the Chiefs’ credit, they have played well in recent weeks, including last week’s playoff game where they recorded two sacks and two turnovers against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has gotten his players to buy in at just the right time, and the results speak for themselves — as the Cincinnati head coach pointed out.
“[Spagnuolo] does a great job,” Taylor noted. “I played against him many times in my career. Creative, keeps you off balance, and the players you can tell believe in this scheme. They do a great job of bringing it to life, and they’re put in good positions that make things difficult for you. So again, he’s a big reason why they continue to be in this position. They got a great defense, they got good players, but they utilize them the right way as well.”
Taylor went on to discuss the versatility of the Chiefs' defense and the challenge they will present to the Bengals.
“I think that they have a good amount of defense to pull from at different times,” Taylor continued. “Of course, like anything, it can evolve from week to week. [Spagnuolo] can just play a lot zone coverage, he can pressure you — and he can mix it in there. They’ve got a lot of ways that they can utilize their players.”
The biggest key to the success of the Chiefs’ defense is lineman Chris Jones. He finished the regular season fourth in the league in sacks and will be tasked with applying pressure on a Bengals offense that has injuries throughout their offensive line.
Jones has proven to be a game wrecker this season and is someone the Bengals have made a point of emphasis on stopping this week.
“Is he in the MVP conversation too?” Taylor said half-jokingly. “I mean he’s a great player. He always gives teams a real headache to go against — run and pass. You can tell how smart of a player he is — I don’t know I’ve never met him — but you can just tell by his style of play that he is a very intelligent player and so again he’s a real challenge to go against.”
Of course, the greatest challenge anytime an opponent plays the Chiefs is slowing down quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City offense. Mahomes will be hindered by a high-ankle sprain suffered last weekend. However, he is still expected to play.
Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton, who went viral for his comments referring to Arrowhead as “Burrowhead,” says the team has to be ready regardless of the injury status of Kansas City’s star quarterback.
“Not at all,” Hilton explained, when asked if his preparation for Mahomes changes with the injury. “His right arm isn’t banged up, so whether he’s out there on one foot or two, he is who he is.
“He’s the guy and we got to make sure we all make it difficult for him.”