As the Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes look to right another wrong from the regular season and continue their tear through the playoffs, Joe Burrow preps for his first trip to Arrowheads Stadium.
Chiefs Fcous @ChiefsFocus Charles Robinson @CRob5769
Shock and denial. Pain and guilt. Anger and bargaining. The upward turn. It turns out it only took 4 of the 7 stages of grief for the Chiefs and their fan base to get over a week 17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. As the Chiefs come back down to earth after winning the greatest game the planet has ever seen, behind one of the greatest efforts an earthly quarterback has ever produced, the Bengals ride into town off an exciting last second win over the number 1 seed Tennessee Titans – both late game victories book ending what was almost certainly the greatest divisional round weekend in NFL history. While the Bengals are on the right side of momentum, and surely adrenaline packed heading into their third AFC Championship game – but first since 1989, they have more question marks heading in than Kansas City without a doubt. The Chiefs roll in to their fourth consecutive AFC Championship game (all at home in the friendly confines of Arrowhead Stadium) after storming through the Wild Card and Divisional rounds behind an offensive unit that put up a combined 84 points, 1,030 yards of offense, and 11 offensive touchdowns on the teams featuring the league’s likely defensive player of the year (Pittsburgh, TJ Watt) and the league’s best defensive unit in 2021 (Buffalo).
Cincinnati is no stranger to staggering offensive numbers. Second year quarterback Joe Burrow led the Bengals to an improbable AFC North championship just two years removed from a 2-14 season. A season so bad that the Bengals earned the number one pick in the 2020 NFL draft, with which they drafted – you guessed it, Joe Burrow. These are the type of picks that provides job security and can build a legacy for a general manager. Burrow finished the season 6th in the league in passing with 4,611 yards and threw for 34 TD on the season, 13 of those going to his former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase. Chase lit the league up in his first season, sealing many rookie records (including one against the Chiefs) and almost certainly the Offensive Rookie of the Year hardware that will be handed out in February. Any time a player draws comparisons to Randy Moss and has the greatest rookie season since Moss’s rookie campaign for the 1998 Vikings, you tend to want to include them in their gameplan. It appears the Chiefs did not in week 17, when Chase erupted for 11 catches, 266 yards, and 3 TD. Now, anyone reading this know that there was far more to this game than the player stats you see on the score sheet, but we’ll get to that later in this blog, and even deeper later this week.
It hasn’t been long since these two played, exactly 4 weeks when the game kicks off on Sunday, so not much has realistically changed for either in that short of a time period. But the way each has played since has been markedly different than how they performed on January 2. Roster moves and injuries have been minimal, both should be at near full strength on Sunday with the exception of one. Cincinnati will be without defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who was placed on the IR prior to their matchup with the Titans. Ogunjobi was one of two Bengals who was able to hit Mahomes in their first meeting, recording 2 QB hits and 4 total tackles on the day. But you can expect both offenses to be dialed in. Cincinnati behind Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, but also one of the NFL’s best backfield weapons in Joe Mixon, receivers who are more than complementary in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, and a tight end that has played well in his second postseason with Cincinnati CJ Uzomah. Kansas City certainly has it going on offense with every player – Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Jerick McKinnon, Byron Pringle, Demarcus Robinson, Noah Grey, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire – clicking, an offensive line that is playing some of its best football at the right time against the toughest competition, and a quarterback that appears to have ascended football and is now playing a game that is so far ahead of his peers that it’s unrecognizable.
Both teams could use a boost defensively, though. At least from how the first matchup went. Let’s start with the Bengals. While Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase were putting up Madden ’22 numbers on offense, the Bengals defense was struggling to stop the Chiefs run game and passing attack. In defeat, KC put 414 yards and 31 points on the Bengals in their home stadium. The Bengals were unable to generate much of a pass rush against the Chiefs, netting 0 sacks and only 4 QB hits on the afternoon and allowed 155 yards (6.7 YPC) and 2 TD on the ground. This was with Joe Thuney playing left tackle, and Nick Allegretti taking one for the team and moving from playoff touchdown scoring tight end to left guard. In order to slow the Chiefs this weekend, Cincinnati is going to have to have more production from their defensive front 4, and it starts with Trey Hendrickson.
During the regular season, Hendrickson was the league’s 5th best sack master with 14, and the Bengals rush defense was the league’s 5th best as well, giving up 102.5 yards per game. This becomes even more impressive when you consider the Bengals division – Baltimore and Cleveland were number 3 and 4 in the league in rushing this season, both averaging over 145 yards per game, and both played the Bengals twice. Missing Ogunjobi will not be ideal for Cincinnati in the rematch, especially when you consider that KC will have a healthy Clyde Edwards-Helaire and a suddenly deadly Jerick McKinnon in the backfield this time around, but we can certainly expect the Bengals defense to have adjusted and show improvement in this matchup. They certainly have shown in the playoffs that they have come ready to play. Against Las Vegas and Tennessee, the Bengals have allowed a combined 35 points (a touchdown shy of the Chiefs per game scoring average in the postseason) and forced 6 turnovers. The Chiefs offense will need to protect the football and start hot to not fall victim to the Bengals talented defensive unit.
For the Chiefs, they will need better secondary play than they saw last week against Buffalo and Josh Allen. They almost certainly will, as the team fully expects both Tyrann Mathieu and Rashad Fenton to be back on the field on Sunday, the first time the entire secondary has been together since the Cincinnati game. When they take that field, they will have to have their collective attention on number 1 in black and orange. Ja’Marr Chase certainly posed massive issues for the Chiefs in week 17, but there is hope for a different outcome this time around. In last Sunday’s matchup with the Buffalo Bills, the KC defense showed that they can minimize damage from players who have traditionally killed them by shutting down Bills receiver Stefon Diggs and tight end Dawson Knox. Both players averaged over 30 yards per reception against the Chiefs in week 5, but in the revenge game in the divisional round they combined for 15. Credit goes to L’Jarius Sneed, Charvarius Ward, and Juan Thornhill for excellent coverage and sound tackling. While Gabriel Davis nearly did the Chiefs in, the absence of Mathieu and the necessity to play Mike Hughes rather than the injured Fenton certainly contributed to his explosion.
The secondary is certainly in better form now, aided heavily by the pass rush getting home and disrupting opposing offensive rhythms. The Chiefs had Josh Allen on the run early and often in the divisional round and got to Joe Burrow 4 times the first time these two squared off. After Burrow was sacked 9 times last week against Tennessee (a record for sacks by a winning QB in a playoff game), the Chiefs defensive front, behind playoff veterans Chris Jones and Frank Clark, with surely be salivating at the prospects of teeing off on a suspect Cincinnati offensive line. This all comes with a caveat, though. The players on the field must be allowed to play the game, period. In the first meeting of these two teams, the Chiefs defense had absolutely no chance to establish any type of physicality and at times even play tackle football. The Chiefs were flagged 10 times, including 3 on the final drive of the game – an offsides call on Chris Jones that should have been a Joe Burrow false start, a phantom pass interference call on Charvarius Ward that was offsetting, but was on a 4th down and allowed the Bengals another play from the 1 yard line, and an illegal use of hands penalty on L’Jarius Sneed on the very next play where he jammed a receiver in the shoulder pads, giving the Bengals a first and goal from the ½ yard line with 50 seconds left on the clock and no timeouts remaining for KC. To put it bluntly, the officiating was atrocious the first time these two teams played. It is doubtful that we will see officiating that dreadful this deep in the playoffs. If we do, I will have lost all faith in humanity.
Preliminarily thinking through some of the matchups in this game, my mind kept racing back to the one that everyone will talk about all week. For the second consecutive week, but certainly not for the last time, we have a matchup of another one of the AFC’s best quarterbacks and its best quarterback. I wrote a blog about the new rivalry leading up to the week 17 matchup, but did not expect Round 2 to come this quickly. So which quarterback does this mean more for?
Well, a win on Sunday would certainly catapult Burrow from the class of “best young QBs” in the league to having to be included in the conversation as one of the best period. He has already crafted one of the better starts to a career that the league has seen. He has proven at every level that he is a winner, so to start his playoff career with a run like this and a win like this in Kansas City against the two time defending AFC champions would be something that begins a legacy at a very young age. The problem is, the man that he is stepping into the ring with has a legacy of his own that he started writing 4 years ago, and is still taking to new heights. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs could do something that only 3 teams in the history of the NFL have done – win the AFC for a third consecutive year. In a season where he and the Chiefs host the AFC championship for a record fourth straight year. Mahomes legacy on the field, if it ended today, would land him in Canton. But the Chiefs are building something more than a couple of good seasons. The heights they are now trying to reach are dynastic in nature, and have been touched by so few in the history of the sport that they seem almost unattainable.
But what’s new for Patrick Mahomes? The expectations for the Chiefs quarterback have been sky high since he opened his career with 5,000 yards, 50 touchdowns, a league MVP, and the team’s first appearance in the AFC Championship in 25 years in his first season as a starter. They have continued to escalate each year, peaking this year when the fanbase and national media apparently expected perfection. Well, for those who are impatient and cannot see the forest for the trees, the first part of the season probably did look a little off to you. Many forgot who they were watching, and what he was capable of over the course of an entire season. From 3-4 to 12-5. From perceived underdog to acclaimed best in the game. What we all have to sit back and realize is that, at the end of the day when it matters the most, it is still safe to expect greatness from number 15. Perhaps the most impressive piece of legacy Mahomes has built thus far? Even when we do expect greatness, like last week against Buffalo, he still finds a way to shatter those expectations. In the process of doing that over and over again, he continues to redefine greatness. With a win on Sunday, he’ll be on the cusp of redefining it once again.