On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs will attempt to top the Cincinnati Bengals — on the heels of three consecutive head-to-head losses — to win the AFC Championship and punch a ticket to Super Bowl LVII in Arizona.
In all recent losses, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has foiled the Chiefs' defense at every turn. After the trio of defeats, it is safe to say the third-year starter has the unit's respect and attention.
"We've got a huge challenge ahead of us," Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones reiterated after Friday's practice. "A great team, great offense, heck of a quarterback. We know what's ahead of us. We know what we have to do in order to overcome these obstacles. We've just got to put the ball down."
Defensive end Frank Clark pulled out all the accolades for Burrow on Friday, comparing him to an all-time great.
"Number one, [as a] pocket quarterback, I feel like he's the best in the game," Clark declared. "He's got that Peyton Manning in him. No matter how many times he gets hit — no matter how many times he gets knocked down — he's getting back up. He's controlling, bringing and pulling his offense back together and making the adjustments and making the right plays.
"He knows how to read safeties — and he knows how to read the defense. When you're an immature defense or when you're a defense that can't really disguise the coverage or disguise things, he's going to pick you apart every time. I feel like in the past — the last few games — those are things that he's been able to do is just expose us in those different aspects."
Earlier in the week, Burrow stressed the difficulty of going against Jones. The defensive tackle did not understand the sentiment, given the opportunities he has missed to bring Burrow down, particularly in last season's AFC Title game loss to Cincinnati.
"I haven't touched him yet in the playoffs," Jones admitted, "but I appreciate the kind words. He's tough to bring down. He's quicker than he's perceived. Agile – slithery at times – and hopefully, we're able to get our hands around him and get him down a couple of times, but he's definitely a challenge to bring down."
Getting to Burrow may be easier this time around. Since defeating the Chiefs 27-24 in Week 10, the Bengals have lost three starters on the offensive line. Left tackle Jonah Williams and right guard Alex Cappa are listed as "out" for Sunday's game — while right tackle La'el Collins was previously lost for the season with a knee injury.
Jones does not anticipate their replacements being any less of a challenge, especially after a strong performance in the Bengals' Divisional Round win against the Buffalo Bills.
"Being down starters, they did really really well against Buffalo," Jones observed. "Buffalo has a really good defensive line to me. [Defensive tackles] Ed Oliver, Jordan Phillips — they don't have their main guy [EDGE-rusher] Vonn Miller, but they have a lot of quality guys on the defensive line.
"Being down three offensive linemen going in — and I don't think they gave up over two sacks — that's tremendous. That's a remarkable job for those guys. They were blocking their tails off."
The Chiefs' longest-tenured defensive player — frustratingly still seeking his first playoff sack — also knows he will likely be given extra attention throughout the game. Even so, he knows an opportunity lost for him can be an opening for someone else.
"Me doubled means the other guys around me are able to get single blocks," Jones stated, "and I'm able to open up the game for the other individuals on the line. When you take the 'me' out of it and the selfish aspect out of it, you're freeing up your teammates.
"It's not meant for you to make all the sacks all the time — as much as I would love to — or make all the plays all the time. Sometimes it's about you freeing up other players so they can excel."
Clark — now tied for fourth all-time in playoff sacks — is ready to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself.
"I kind of get a little more freedom in the postseason — it's win or go home," he claimed. "When you've got that mindset as a player — when you have that mindset as a coach in relational and understanding your player — I think that's where it comes from. When you get to the postseason, I get that nod from Coach Reid — it's like, 'Yeah, go ahead. Do your thing.'
“When you get to the playoffs, you've got those dogs — you've got certain people — where you can say, 'Give him the green light.' There's a reason they brought me here."