As I drove up I-35 North towards Kansas City on Friday evening, I saw a red and yellow billboard with one word — one that perfectly described this AFC Championship between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals: Revenge.
On Sunday night, the Chiefs will welcome the Bengals to Arrowhead Stadium for a 5:30 p.m. kickoff. After the odds went back and forth all week, Kansas City settled as the betting favorite by 1.5 points, according to DraftKings SportsBook. The victor will go on to Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona.
It is the most anticipated game in Arrowhead Stadium since last year’s Divisional Round, which ended in an overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills. The energy in the lead-up is different, however. Cincinnati has had no problem showing disrespect towards the Chiefs because they have beaten them three times in a row.
It should make for an intense battle, and I have five things to watch as you take it in:
1. Patrick Mahomes’ limitations
After suffering a high-ankle sprain in last week’s win, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was a full participant in practice this week — not even earning an injury designation on the final injury report.
It’s hard to imagine he is all the way back to his full mobility. You may not notice anything on his traditional dropbacks from the shotgun, but there is potential for under-center plays to be restricted or his improvisation to be less effective. The Chiefs’ run game from under center has been much more impactful than it has been from the shotgun, and the same goes for their play-action passes.
If the playbook does have to be condensed to a majority of the shotgun and pocket passes, there’s heightened responsibility placed upon the offensive tackles — but also Mahomes, to get the ball out quickly and in rhythm.
The Bengals’ defense has excelled at closing primary-throwing windows against the Chiefs. The simple counter is to get the ball to playmakers in space as fast as possible, and any limited mobility from Mahomes may force him to be more disciplined in that regard.
2. The defensive line wins their matchup
In last year’s AFC Championship, the Chiefs’ defense pressured Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow on 17 of his 42 dropbacks — a rate of 40%. A rough offensive line gave way to plenty of disrupted pockets, but the Chiefs only got Burrow down once.
This season, the Chiefs’ pass rush is stronger: defensive tackle Chris Jones is a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, defensive end Frank Clark already has more sacks than he did last playoff run, veteran Carlos Dunlap is better than Melvin Ingram was last year, and the duo of George Karlaftis and Mike Danna can both win and clean up others pressure with high motors.
That’s what will be needed: high-energy rushes, but ones that don’t over-pursue the quarterback — like Jones allowed to happen twice last year. It’s a delicate balance that will be made easier by Cincinnati’s banged-up offensive line.
Backup left tackle Jackson Carman, backup right guard Max Scharping, and right tackle Hakeem Adeniji — who replaced the injured starting right tackle La’el Collins in Week 17 — benefitted from a snowy terrain that Buffalo’s already-mediocre pass rush failed to get traction in.
They didn’t face anything like Jones, who will be on his “A” game. It’s up to the pieces around him to take advantage of his impact and make it a game-altering performance.
3. Explosive runs
While the Chiefs’ pass game has run into trouble with Cincinnati, the run game truly never has. Last season, running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon made their way to 101 yards on 18 combined handoffs, but neither took a carry for more than 14 yards.
Rookie running back Isiah Pacheco has a different gear that the aforementioned two just can’t hit, and you saw that last week on the 39-yard run. The Chiefs have churned yards out against the Bengals, but Pacheco’s acceleration and long speed may give them a chance to create explosive plays out of the run game this time around. Pacheco had a 16-yard run against the Bengals in Week 13, totaling 66 yards over 14 carries.
An explosive rushing attack keeps Kansas City ahead of the sticks, out of third downs and other obvious passing downs. With Pacheco’s breakaway speed, there’s potential for a game-breaking score as well.
4. Aggressive pursuit on defense
In the Week 13 matchup, the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator overcorrected his mistake of leaving his cornerbacks on islands with Bengals’ receivers last season, playing a lot of soft zone coverage and forcing underneath passes.
The problem was that Kansas City’s defenders were lackluster in their rallying and pursuit to the ball, missing tackles — or making them, but being dragged across the first-down marker. I believe that’s a mindset that starts with the game plan and needs to be emphasized by Spagnuolo. Linebackers Nick Bolton, Willie Gay Jr. and safety Justin Reid are at their best when they get used aggressively and get to play with their hair on fire.
Those same players can have that mindset in the passing game, by attacking routes and closing down, throwing lanes over the middle to tight end Hayden Hurst and slot receiver Tyler Boyd. Look for those three Chiefs defenders to be used in an attacking fashion rather than passively.
5. Utilizing wide receivers
One of the biggest X-factors in this game is wide receiver Kadarius Toney, who missed the Week 13 matchup due to injury. His ability to make plays after the catch is exactly what Mahomes needs to lean on when Cincinnati’s coverage muddies up the throwing lanes to tight end Travis Kelce and other primary targets.
At the same time, the Chiefs have gotten big plays from their receivers in this series — from the 44-yard bomb to Mecole Hardman in last year’s AFC title game, to the 42-yard catch Marquez Valdes-Scantling had to beat the blitz this year. The Bengals will give Mahomes seldom chances, but he will hit them when they’re there.
Even in the traditional pass game, wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster should have a mismatch on either side of the field: rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and Eli Apple play the perimeter. There’s no reason the Chiefs shouldn’t be able to exploit that, and that could mean a few back-shoulder throws to Smith-Schuster on the sideline.