For the fourth consecutive season, the Kansas City Chiefs will host the AFC title game. This time around, their opponent is the Cincinnati Bengals, who are looking to earn a trip to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are trying to get there for the third straight year.
This is the second time we’ll see these two teams play against each other this season, after the Bengals defeated the Chiefs 34-31 in Week 17. The Chiefs have home-field advantage this time around, though, and that could play a role in the rematch.
Which of these two teams will advance to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI? We’ll find out soon enough. But first, let’s break down the matchup.
How to watch
When the Bengals have the ball
There was a portion of the season when Kansas City’s defense was playing extremely well. From Weeks 8 through 16, the Chiefs allowed more than 20 points only once and more than 303 total yards just twice. After ranking dead last in EPA (expected points added) per play through the first seven weeks of the season, the Chiefs checked in fourth during that Week 8-16 stretch, according to Tru Media. Then, they played the Bengals.
Since then, they’re allowed at least 21 points in each of their four games, and at least 364 total yards in three of four. In games not played against the inept Steelers offense, they’ve allowed an average of 31 points and 420 yards per contest. The Bengals got that started with a 34-31 victory in Week 17, racking up 475 total yards in that game — including 415 through the air.
Joe Burrow and Co. repeatedly tested Kansas City’s corners down the field. His 15.4 percent deep ball (20-plus yards downfield) rate was his third-highest mark of the season. Crucially, the Bengals went down the field with quick-strike passes. On average, Burrow took just 2.46 seconds from snap to throw against the Chiefs — his third-fasted time to throw of the season. That combination proved deadly, as he repeatedly found Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins over the top of coverage.
The Bengals have good reason for trying to get rid of the ball quickly. Their offensive line is one of the weakest in football, as we saw just last week when it allowed Burrow to be sacked NINE times against the Tennessee Titans. Burrow was sacked an NFL-high 51 times this season, and his 8.9 percent sack rate was actually higher than it was as a rookie. Of course, not all of the blame can laid at the line’s feet. Some of it has to go to Burrow himself. He took a sack on 25.9 percent of his pressured dropbacks this season, per Tru Media. That was the third-highest rate in the NFL, checking in behind only Baker Mayfield and Ben Roethlisberger. (By way of comparison, Patrick Mahomes was sacked only 12.1 percent of the time when pressured.)
Whether or not the Chiefs’ defensive line will be able to turn pressure into sacks figures to go a long way toward determining how effective the Cincinnati pass offense will be in this game. That makes the matchup of Chris Jones vs. the Bengals’ interior offensive line particularly important, because it will be much more difficult for Burrow to simply hit the top of his drop, set his feet, and fire if the pocket is being pushed back into his lap.
Also of great importance is how often Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo sends a blitz. Doing so can help get to Burrow quicker and perhaps with more regularity, but also leaves your cornerbacks more vulnerable on the perimeter. We saw in the first matchup between these two teams much of an advantage Chase and Higgins had against Charvarius Ward and Mike Hughes. Allowing them to work one on one in those matchups again is practically asking to be burned by big plays in the passing game. So, finding a way to generate pressure while also being able to give those corners some help over the top should be high on Spagnuolo’s priority list in the rematch.
Perhaps that means a steadier diet of Cover-2 and/or Cover-4, so the corners aren’t left on an island. That would carry the benefit of funneling the passing attack to Tyler Boyd and C.J. Uzomah on the inside — unless Burrow can hit some hole shots against two-deep coverage, between the corner and the safety. Expect a lot of midrange streaks and corner routes if the Chiefs try to play more Cover-2, while they could also work the ball to Joe Mixon against underneath coverage and count on him to break some tackles and create first downs. Removing defenders from the box could also allow for Cincinnati’s run game to be more effective than it was the first time these two teams played.
When the Chiefs have the ball
Coming off one of the greatest games in NFL history, Patrick Mahomes will get a chance for a redo against a Bengals defense that did not exactly stymie him, but also did not necessarily get lit up. Mahomes finished the first contest between these two teams 26 of 35 for 259 yards and two touchdowns, and with his seventh-highest mark of the season in both passer rating and EPA per play average.
One thing to note is that the Bengals frequently used soft coverages against Kansas City, which resulted in Mahomes taking an average of 3.09 seconds between snap and throw — his second-highest mark of the year. Cincinnati sent a blitz even less often (10.8 percent of dropbacks) than the average team did against Mahomes this season (11.2 percent), which was already a rate that fell far short of the league average (25.7 percent). The Bengals played Cover-2, Cover-4, or Cover-6 on 17 of Mahomes’ 35 dropbacks — plays on which he completed 13 of 17 passes for just 93 yards. He went 13 of 18 for 166 yards and two scores otherwise.
His top two receivers, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, combined for 11 receptions on 17 targets, but those catches yielded just 65 total yards — an average of just 3.8 per target. Making an effort to take away the deep ball at all costs paid off for Lou Anarumo’s unit.
Still, the degree to which two-high-safety coverages are a “solution” for this Chiefs passing attack has been wildly overblown. Mahomes still checked in fifth in the NFL in EPA per play against Cover-2, Cover-4, and Cover-6 this season, for example. The Bills utilized one of those three coverages on 34 of Mahomes’ 53 dropbacks last week, and he shredded it to the tune of 22 of 39 for 207 yards, and an EPA per-play average that would have been best in the league by a significant margin. He similarly lit up the Steelers when they played two-high in the wild card round.
The added threat of running back Jerick McKinnon as a tackle-breaker on underneath targets and swing routes also presents a new dimension for Kansas City’s offense. McKinnon has 11 catches for 135 yards and a score in Kansas City’s two playoff games. Clyde Edwards-Helaire finished with just 129 receiving yards all season. Darrel Williams had one monster receiving day against the Raiders but has otherwise been an ordinary pass-catching threat. McKinnon is far more dynamic than either back who spent most of the season ahead of him on the depth chart.
In the absence of blitzers, the Bengals will count on their defensive front to do the lion’s share of the work pressuring Mahomes. Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard should each have their moments against Orlando Brown and Andrew Wylie on the outside, but the Bengals may struggle to get much pressure up the middle. It will be important for the edge rushers to maintain lane integrity so they don’t let Mahomes get up through the pocket or out to the perimeter, where he can make plays with his legs as well as his arm.
Latest Odds: Kansas City Chiefs -7
Prediction: Chiefs 33, Bengals 31