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Instabreakdown: Chiefs play strong in second half to beat Bengals

Both sides of the ball improved their play as the game went on, finishing out the win.

Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

In Week 17, the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 25-17 on New Year’s Eve, clinching the AFC West title and locking down the AFC’s third postseason seed.

Offense

Out of the gate, there were positive vibes about the Chiefs’ offense, as it scored the unit’s first opening-drive touchdown since the win against the Miami Dolphins. It was highlighted by a strong rushing attack, which became a theme of the game — that is, when the offense wanted to rely on it.

But despite the success of running on the first possession, the second one stalled with three straight passes. Bengals’ pass rusher Trey Hendrickson went around rookie left tackle Wanya Morris to strip Mahomes on a sack, setting up the Bengals to take the 17-7 lead.

From there, the Chiefs’ offense did simplify things: just throw the ball to wide receiver Rashee Rice. He helped one scoring drive by gaining 24 yards on a catch-and-run, then set up another when he hauled in a 67-yard pass on a vertical route down the sideline. The rookie finished with a season-high 127 yards on five receptions — giving him 938 on the season.

Among the other wide receivers, only Justin Watson made a positive play: he broke open on a deep pattern toward the sideline, securing a pass for 41 yards. It was his only catch of the game — the same number as Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who dropped two targets. Similar to other recent games, Valdes-Scantling’s game felt like a last-straw kind of performance.

Despite a better ability to move the ball, the Chiefs’ inability to finish drives made this game much harder than it needed to be — and dragged this season’s frustrations into what should have been a very happy moment. The opening-drive touchdown was followed by six field goals.

Offensive player of the game: Running back Isiah Pacheco

Pacheco was the only running back to take a carry in this game, totaling 18 of them and earning 130 yards on the afternoon, which gave him 935 on the season. He had one carry of 35 yards — and then another of 37 yards.

He also caught seven passes on seven targets, one of them gaining 21 yards. Another resulted in a touchdown. With 165 yards from scrimmage, it was a much-needed career day that gave him 1,179 yards from scrimmage in 2023.

Defense

Similar to many games down the stretch, the Chiefs’ defense needed some time to settle in. Through the first two drives, the Bengals had run 26 plays, gained nine first downs and had scored 10 points. Then a short-field drive with another got Cincinnati to 17 points.

But from that moment — the six-minute mark in the second quarter — the Kansas City defense didn’t allow a single point. Seven straight Bengals possessions ended with stops — including two on downs. While the Chiefs’ offense continued to leave the door open for Cincinnati to come back, the defense kept slamming it shut.

That started with a run defense that held Bengals’ running backs to 72 rushing yards on 25 attempts. After a rough start, linebacker Nick Bolton finished with 13 tackles — combining with Willie Gay Jr. (and safety Justin Reid) to consistently make tackles in the box and around the line of scrimmage.

Two of Reid’s tackles (on back-to-back plays later in the game) were sacks. He used a swim move to win on one blitz, then threw off a running back to finish the other one.

The blitzes just supplemented a pass rush that wore down Cincinnati’s blockers. Defensive end Charles Omenihu was credited with half a sack, which went along with a batted pass and a few strong plays in run defense.

Defensive tackles Chris Jones and Tershawn Wharton each earned a sack as well.

It was another shutdown performance from cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, who limited Bengals’ wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase to three catches and 41 yards over seven targets. That still led the Cincinnati receiving corps, as the Chiefs’ pass coverage allowed fewer than 200 passing yards.

Defensive player of the game: Defensive end George Karlaftis

The second-year defensive end got to 10.5 sacks by getting in on a couple of them down the stretch of the game. On one occasion, Karlaftis beat Bengals’ left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. clean around the outside. On another play, he forced an incompletion with a quarterback hit.

Karlaftis’ constant pressure — along with his contributions in restricting the Cincinnati running game — was a key part of the win.

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