For the fifth time in three seasons, the (9-6) Kansas City Chiefs and (8-7) Cincinnati Bengals will match up in an important game. The rematch of the last two AFC Championships will again be at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium; the game is set for a 3:25 PM local kickoff time on Sunday.
The Chiefs entered the weekend as 6.5-point favorites, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. That reflects the injury to Bengals' starting quarterback Joe Burrow — but Cincinnati has won three of the five games without him and keep their postseason chances alive by winning in Kansas City.
That puts pressure on the Chiefs, who need one win to clinch the AFC West title — but a loss could make Week 18 a win-or-go-home scenario.
I have five things to watch in an intense game between true rivals:
1. The potential absence of L'Jarius Sneed
After missing practice all week with a calf strain, cornerback L'Jarius Sneed is questionable to play on Sunday. Bengals' wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase is questionable, too; he missed one practice and the previous game with a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder.
If Chase takes the field and Sneed does not, the Chiefs won't be caught off guard. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been preparing the unit.
"It will look a little different," Spags said in Thursday's press conference. "LJ has traveled with the top wideouts, so the decision we have to make is do we put somebody else in that role, or do we do like we normally do: stay right and stay left."
"We have to have plan A, B, and C; that's what we do..." Spags assured. "Talking about Ja'Marr Chase: they probably feel like he's had 1,000 reps of what he's doing, and can line up. We feel the same way about LJ: you can rest them, and then they know what they're doing. The other guys that are in there as we practice will practice as if we don't have LJ."
“They talk the most shit, that’s why. I love it.” Ja’Marr Chase on why he loves going after Chiefs with smack talk pic.twitter.com/i1RP5M1hNA— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) December 28, 2023
In addition to believing nothing stands out about the Chiefs' secondary, Chase also points out that Chiefs players, namely linebacker Willie Gay, talk a lot of trash. Watch for a passionate battle between Chase and the Kansas City back end, whether Sneed is active... or not.
2. Another challenge for Wanya Morris
In his third-career start last week, rookie left tackle Wanya Morris was credited with 10 pressures allowed by Pro Football Focus: one sack, two quarterback hits, and seven other hurries.
His fourth start won't get easier: Bengals' top edge rusher Trey Hendrickson primarily aligns over the left tackle. He also ranks second in the NFL with 16 sacks, which Chiefs' offensive coordinator Matt Nagy noted when he previewed the Bengals' defense in his press conference Thursday.
"They got some really good players, with Hendrickson, who is top of the league in sacks," Nagy pointed out. "Guys that run around and disrupt a lot.
Surrounding Hendrickson are athletic, strong rushers Sam Hubbard and rookie Myles Murphy — but Cincinnati is down a significant piece up front: Defensive tackle D.J. Reader suffered a season-ending quad injury two weeks ago.
That may lighten the load for the Chiefs' front five, but Morris will have the toughest test of all. The rookie will need help from tight ends, running backs, left guard Joe Thuney and most of all, quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
3. Heating up Jake Browning
In for Burrow, Bengals' quarterback Jake Browning came out firing in his first career starts: He threw for over 320 yards in three of his first four games, including a 32 of 37 passing performance on the road to win in overtime against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Spagnuolo noted how well the career backup has picked up where the injured Pro Bowler left off.
"When we're watching the film, there are times where I go, 'Was that Joe Burrow, or the backup that came in?'" Spags shared. "They look the same to me; Joe's a little bit bigger, but when you see the mannerisms, the way they settle in the pocket, the way they throw, the things they do pre snap... they do a great job coaching them."
The run came to a screeching halt against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, losing 34-11 and throwing three interceptions. Two of the picks were forced by a blitz, which Browning struggled to beat in general. Look for the Chiefs to dial up the blitz packages for Cincinnati.
4. Playing ahead of the sticks on offense
Last week, the Chiefs' offense did itself no favors on the first three drives and throughout the game on first down. Many drives started with a negative play, which led to a failed attempt at converting third and long. The run game could not get off the ground.
Enter the Bengals' defense, which allows the second-highest rate of rushing yards per attempt in the NFL (4.7). That has only softened further since Reader's injury, so look for the Chiefs to exploit the front, no matter who is taking handoffs.
Running backs Isiah Pacheco (concussion/shoulder) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (illness) are both questionable to play; Jerick McKinnon (groin) is on Injured Reserve.
5. Winning at the line of scrimmage on defense
On Sunday, Chiefs' defenders will see a familiar face across the line: left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. The former Chief is the NFL's leader in pressures allowed, by PFF's metric.
Spags notes that familiarity could play in pass rushers' favor, but only if the unit forces Cincinnati into obvious pass downs.
"We have to get them in those situations," Spagnuolo asserted. "If the game is in the balance, or they can pass and run because we don't get them into a passing situation, it won't matter."
This season, the Chiefs allow 4.6 yards per rush — the fifth-highest rate in the NFL. The unit will need a strong effort to make defending the Bengals' dynamic passing attack simpler.