paly 5 things to watch as the Chiefs host the Bengals in the AFC Championship rematch
As I drove north on I-35 toward Kansas City on Friday evening, I saw a red and yellow billboard – a word that perfectly described this AFC Championship in Kansas City.
On Sunday night, the Chiefs will welcome the Bengals to Arrowhead Stadium at 5:30 p.m. Kicking. After odds all week, Kansas City is settled as the betting favorite at 1.5 points, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. The winner will go to Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona.
It’s the most anticipated game at Arrowhead Stadium since last year’s divisional round, which ended with an overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills. Although the strength of the lead-up is different. Cincinnati had no problem showing disrespect to the Chiefs as they beat them three straight.
It should make for an intense battle, and I have five things to watch for when you take it on:
- Patrick Mahomes’ limitations
After suffering a high-ankle sprain in last week’s win, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was a full participant in practice this week not even earning an injury designation on the final injury report.
It’s hard to imagine him ever returning to his full range of motion. You may not notice anything in his traditional dropbacks from the shotgun, but the center has the potential to limit under-center plays or make his improvisations less effective. The Chiefs’ running game has been far more dominant from under center than it has been from the shotgun, and the same goes for their play-action pass.
If the playbook is to be shortened to mostly shotgun and pocket passes, a higher onus is placed on the offensive tackles but also on Mahomes, to get the ball out quickly and with rhythm.
The Bengals’ defense has excelled at closing the early throwing window against the Chiefs. The easy counter is to get the ball to playmakers in space as quickly as possible, and any limited mobility Mahomes has may force him to be more disciplined in this regard.
- The defensive line wins their matchup
In last year’s AFC Championship, the Chief’s defense pressured Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow on 17 of his 42 dropbacks – a 40% rate. A fairly solid offensive line gave way to plenty of disruptive pockets, but the Chiefs only had the 12 down once.
This season, the Chiefs pass rush is even stronger: defensive tackle Chris Jones is a Defensive Player of the Year finalist, defensive end Frank Clark already has more sacks than he did in his last playoff run, veteran Carlos Dunlap is better than last year’s Melvin Ingram, and George Karlaftis and Mike Dana can both win and clear pressure from others with a high motor.
This will require: high-energy rushes, but ones that don’t over-pursue the quarterback — as Jones allowed to happen twice last year. It’s a delicate balance that will be made easier by Cincinnati’s banked-up offensive line.
Backup left tackle, Jackson Carman, backup right guard Max Scharping, and right tackle Hakeem Adeniji, who replaced injured right tackle La’El Collins, benefited from a snowy terrain in Week 17 that failed to get traction for Buffalo’s already-mediocre pass rush.
They haven’t faced anything like Jones, who will be in his A-game. It’s up to those around him to take advantage of his influence and turn it into a game-changing performance.
- Explosive runs
While the Chief’s pass game has struggled with Cincinnati, the run game never really has. Last season, Clyde Edwards-Heller and Jerick McKinnon rushed for 101 yards on 18 combined handoffs, but neither had more than 14 yards on a carry.
Rookie running back Isiah Pacheco has a different gear that the aforementioned two can’t hit, and you saw that 39-yard run last week. The Chiefs churned out yards against the Bengals, but Pacheco’s acceleration and long speed could give them opportunities to make explosive plays outside of the run game this time around. Pacheco had a 16-yard run against the Bengals in Week 13, totaling 66 yards on 14 carries.
An explosive rushing attack keeps Kansas City ahead of third downs and other obvious passing downs. With Pacheco’s breakaway pace, a game-breaking score is also a possibility.
- An aggressive pursuit on defense
In the Week 13 matchup, the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator corrected last season’s mistake of leaving his cornerbacks on islands with the Bengals’ receivers, playing plenty of soft zone coverage and forcing down passes.
The problem was Kansas City’s defenders were poor at rallying and chasing the ball, missing tackles — or making them, but being dragged across the first-down marker. I believe it’s a mindset that starts with the game plan and needs to be emphasized by Spagnolo. Linebackers Nick Bolton, Willie Gay Jr., and safety Justin Reid are at their best when used offensively and playing with fire in their hair.
Those same players can have that mindset in the passing game, attacking and blocking routes, throwing lanes across the middle like tight end Hayden Hurst and slot receiver Tyler Boyd. Look for those three chief defenders to be used in an aggressive fashion rather than passively.
- Utilizing wide receivers
One of the biggest X-factors in this game is wide receiver Kadarius Toney, who missed the Week 13 matchup with an injury. His ability to make plays after the catch when Cincinnati’s coverage muddies the throwing lanes to Travis Kelce and other primary targets is exactly what Mahomes needs to lean on.
At the same time, the Chiefs have gotten big plays from their receivers in this series, from a 44-yard bomb by Mecole Hardman to a 42-yard catch by Marquez Valdez-Scantling in last year’s AFC title game to beat a blitz. The Bengals will rarely give Mahomes a chance this year, but he will hurt them when they are there.
Even in the traditional pass game, wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster should be a mismatch on both sides of the field: rookie cornerbacks Cam Taylor-Britt and Eli Apple play the perimeter. There’s no reason the Chiefs can’t exploit this, and that could mean a few back-shoulder throws to Smith-Schuster on the sideline.