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AFC Championship Instabreakdown: the Chiefs get the Bengals off their backs

Kansas City beats Cincinnati to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI.

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Final Score: Kansas City Chiefs 23, Cincinnati Bengals 20


The Kansas City offense came out in dominant fashion, marching down the field twice — but stalling out in the red zone was a major problem. Injuries quickly became the story of the offense as Kadarius Toney, Mecole Hardman and Juju Smith-Schuster all left the game with injuries.

But Kansas City found an unlikely hero: wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling turned in his best game of his season, gaining 116 yards (and scoring a touchdown) on six catches. Tight end Travis Kelce came into Sunday questionable with back spasms — but even so, he produced 78 yards and a crucial touchdown on a fourth-and-1. Isiah Pacheco turned in his best performance as a receiver, collecting 59 yards. The Chiefs’ offense needed players to step up — and they did.

Speaking of stepping up... Patrick Mahomes’ injured ankle was a factor in this game. He looked much better than he did after sustaining the injury in the Divisional Round, but his mobility was still limited. Nonetheless, Mahomes made the crucial scramble that ultimately sent Kansas City to the Super Bowl, gaining a first down that put the Chiefs into field goal range. Even on a bad ankle — and with Marcus Kemp among those going out for passes — Mahomes collected 326 passing yards and two touchdowns. At times, Mahomes and the offense looked out of sorts — but when it mattered most, they made plays.

The Bengals also made Kansas City one-dimensional by holding the team to only 42 rushing yards. With the state of Mahomes’ ankle, they refused to let the Chiefs run the ball — which made things challenging for the offense. Ultimately, however, Cincinnati’s inability to limit Kansas City’s passing game on third down is what cost them the game.

Offensive player of the game: Patrick Mahomes

Valdes-Scantling balled out — but Patrick Mahomes shouldn’t even have been playing. His dedication to rehabbing his ankle (while turning in a 326-yard performance) is the one of the main reasons the Chiefs are headed to Glendale. Mahomes had no running game. He was without Kadarius Toney, Mecole Hardman and JuJu Smith-Schuster — and he still went out and won the game. He once again proved that he should be the NFL’s 2022 MVP.


It was a great day for Chiefs’ defense. It cannot be stated enough: this victory is largely because of its great play. The Bengals have the league’s best group of skill position players — but on Saturday, the defense held Cincinnati to just 20 points. The pass rushers followed through on their promise, generating five sacks — including Chris Jones’ game-altering third-and-long takedown.

Kansas City’s rookies continued to step up. Jaylen Watson came away with one interception — and a tipped pass by Bryan Cook led to another interception by fellow rookie Joshua Williams. Even after losing veteran cornerback L’Jarius Sneed and linebacker Willie Gay Jr., the defense continued to step up when it mattered most. The run defense was strong, holding Samaje Perrine and Joe Mixon to only 41 rushing yards. It was clear that forcing the Bengals’ offense to pass protect was a key part of Kansas City’s defensive game plan.

Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo put on a defensive masterclass, dialing up stunts that allowed pass rushers to get home. Facing an intelligent quarterback like Joe Burrow, it’s easy to get beaten while blitzing — but Spagnuolo was able to get pressure while still providing coverage on Cincinnati’s elite weapons.

As the season has progressed, safety Justin Reid has turned in some of his best performances of the year. He followed through on Sunday, holding tight end Hayden Hurst to just 37 yards — while Perine and Mixon combined for only 19 yards receiving yards. This was a major turnaround from the last matchup, in which the Chiefs were crushed in the middle of the field.

The story of this game was always going to be the Kansas City pass rush against Cincinnati’s banged-up offensive line. George Karlaftis collected his first playoff sack, while Frank Clark continued to be a playoff legend with a sack and a half of his own.

Defensive player of the game: Chris Jones

But every single Bengals player, coach and fan knew the team would have to shut down defensive tackle Chris Jones. Yet he still logged two sacks — and seemed to be pressuring Burrow on every play. Even as the offense’s “marked man,” Jones was dominant. On Sunday night, he put his name in the Chiefs’ Ring of Honor.

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