The Chiefs scored a touchdown on the opening drive for the first time since before the bye week, quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed his longest pass of the season and the unit totaled more yards (373) than it had in any of the previous eight games.
Keeping in mind that Cincinnati has had one of the league’s worst defenses this season, Kansas City came out with a focused, simplified game plan: hand off to running back Isiah Pacheco, then execute explosive pass plays around those plays.
The offense didn’t feature a lot of pre-snap motion or shifts. Only four players touched the ball more than once — and the group went up and down the field as seamlessly as it had in quite a while.
I believe it was a preview of what the postseason strategy will look like. Here are three factors that went into the game plan:
1. Feeding Isiah Pacheco
The lead running back was the only one to take a carry on Sunday. It won’t be that extreme in the playoffs — running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was inactive against the Bengals — but Pacheco is a difference-maker in the rushing attack.
This started on the game’s first play, which gained nine yards and immediately set the offense up ahead of the sticks.
#Chiefs run game hit Cincy with One-Back Power to gain 9 yards to start the opening drive, then 37 yards to set up a FG later— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 3, 2024
Downhill scheme allows guys to just fire out on down blocks, then Thuney tops it off w/ pulling & sealing the lane pic.twitter.com/f3Kh46ymjv
The run play is Power right, which calls for players like right tackle Jawaan Taylor and right guard Trey Smith to simply fire and down-block defenders to the inside. That pries open a running lane, which left guard Joe Thuney seals with a pulling block on the linebacker.
These plays also depend on strong blocks by tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. This gives Pacheco a runway to gain steam and maximize his breakaway speed — as we see in his 37-yard run.
A normal outside zone call popped for 35 as well. Pacheco reads the flow & makes an awesome in-and-out cut to maneuver it— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 3, 2024
Strong blocks all around, especially Gray & Kelce at the 2nd level pic.twitter.com/eYd6CKpd27
Here we see the same thing on Pacheco’s 35-yard gash — but the play is simply outside zone. A key detail: the handoff comes from under center, allowing Pacheco to read the flow of the defense. This allows him to identify cutback lanes more effectively than he can from shotgun.
This is one of the best runs Pacheco has ever had. He reads the front side linebacker overcommitting, turns to the cutback lane and quickly bounces back outside toward the sideline. The maneuver narrowly avoids defenders — and the back is once again aided with strong blocks on the second level.
That’s because the skill-position players aren’t running routes for run-pass option plays. These are run-only calls, allowing these blocks that pop runs for more than just 10 or 15 yards.
2. Finding explosive pass plays
To go along with its stronger running game, the Chiefs found chunk plays through the air on nearly every scoring drive.
I liked this play design on the opening drive to create an explosive play for Rice— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 3, 2024
Lining up in a tighter slot, Rice runs the slide route off play action. That catches backside defenders off-guard, who see Kelce stay in & get flat footed
Easy catch and run for 18 yards pic.twitter.com/qVBmk2tdm4
On the opening drive, wide receiver Rashee Rice aligns tight to the offensive line in the slot. This allows him to quickly get to the opposite side of the field on a play-action bootleg. The hard run fake fools the back side defenders — especially because Kelce stays in to block.
Rice led the team in explosive receptions against Cincinnati, adding two more before the final whistle.
After a similar play fell incomplete last week, it was nice to see Mahomes & Rice on the same page for this 24-yard gain— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 3, 2024
It's also what made the 67-yard catch possible: Both players recognize the Bengals' blown coverage, and hook up in rhythm pic.twitter.com/Qea2cfInyU
This 24-yard gash is a great example of Rice continuing to improve his chemistry with Mahomes. In Week 16, a very similar route fell incomplete — but this time, it is executed seamlessly.
Rice’s 67-yard reception was an encouraging sign for both the wideout and the quarterback. The Bengals blew their Cover 2 shell — and both Rice and Mahomes saw the opportunity for a vertical pass. So Rice adjusted to keep moving upfield and Mahomes threw it to him without a hiccup.
The Chiefs also executed a vertical shot without the help of a blown coverage.
#Chiefs need to make teams pay for playing Cover 1 more— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 3, 2024
This is a great example. Kelce & other underneath routes are focused on, leaving room Watson to the deep sideline on 3rd down
Great route & great throw pic.twitter.com/bB7VFTmb98
On this third down, the Bengals commit to taking away underneath options — just like so many other teams have done this season. The one-high look gives wide receiver Justin Watson space to operate on a corner route that shows great spacing and timing. Mahomes’ beautiful throw gains 41 yards.
This is where Watson is at his best — and why he is the one receiver with whom Mahomes appears to be the most confident on downfield throws. In the postseason, teams will continue to bait Kansas City with one-high looks. In order to get the best advantage, Watson — not Marquez Valdes-Scantling — needs to be the primary deep-route runner.
3. Conservative execution
The lowlight from Sunday’s offensive performance was the lack of touchdowns: only one of the seven scoring possessions ended in six points; after the opening drive, the two remaining red-zone trips turned into field goals.
#Chiefs need to finish drives more than they did v. Cincy, but many of the FGs were set up by conservative play from Mahomes late in drives— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 3, 2024
No throws to the EZ. Many checkdowns. That might be the nature of the team this playoffs: not forcing mistakes, leaning on the defense pic.twitter.com/Grj94cvOjt
In the first-and-goal play on the opening drive, Mahomes plays it safe while passing in the red zone. Wide receiver Justyn Ross runs a post pattern, which actually opens up a window underneath for Watson. Once Mahomes passes that up to scramble, Ross puts himself in position for a jump ball in the corner of the end zone — but the gunslinger keeps it in his holster.
The next play shows a third down later in the game, where the Chiefs align Ross in position to run a goal-line fade. Mahomes doesn’t give him the one-on-one shot — and eventually loses yards on the checkdown. Throughout the afternoon, Mahomes refused to force a throw into the end zone.
It wasn’t the cause of every red-zone stop — there was also some conservative play-calling — but either way, each drive still ended in points. Those still added up to a win — and may indicate how this offense will operate in the postseason.
The bottom line
Let’s face it: the Kansas City defense is very good. It is primed to make a difference in postseason games. It feels like the Chiefs’ offense needs to lean on that, helping its cause with a strong rushing attack, solid execution on explosive passes — when they’re there — and being careful not to force anything.