AFC Championship Preview

January 29, 2022

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Chiefs Focus @ChiefsFocus Charles Robinson @CRob5769

Well, in early January I wrote about the first meeting of Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow and envisioned a rivalry that would eventually reach the heights of Mahomes battles against some of the league’s other fine young quarterbacks. I did not anticipate that the heat of the rivalry and the stakes at hand would crank up this quickly, but here we are. A little over 24 hours away from the Chiefs and Bengals kicking off the 2021 AFC Championship game (at the end of January 2022) and there will be two storylines hanging in the balance – Mahomes and the Chiefs win the AFC for a third consecutive time and take one step closer to confirming their place in the “dynasty” conversation (a Super Bowl victory would seal it), or the Bengals win their first AFC Championship since the 80’s and Joe Burrow officially arrives on the scene. 

The thing about this game is the real trash talk and hate is not coming from the people of Cincinnati. There’s not a ton of talk in the media from Bengals or Chiefs players this week. In my opinion, Cincinnati and Kansas City should embrace this. We have two small market teams in the epicenter of the football world at the moment. Two young quarterbacks who are the heartbeat of the youth movement in the NFL – one who has established himself as nothing we’ve ever seen before, and one who is trying to write his own story. Both equally as compelling, both equally as charismatic, both with killer instincts and competitive drives that can break the spirits of grown men. This, along with the Chiefs rivalry with the Buffalo Bills, is about as good as it gets if you’re a fan of the game of football.

As we all know, there’s football, and there’s people who get paid to talk about (mostly) football on TV, streaming audio and video, and social media. The national media, in all forms, has dug in deep on this game this week. Questions like “Who’s got more swag, Burrow or Mahomes?” and “who would you take for the next 10 seasons, Burrow or Mahomes?” I don’t really mind those hypotheticals because they’re fun, and the correct answer is obviously always Patrick Mahomes when it comes to those questions, but what I do mind, and will sound off on before we get into the game, is the “everyone vs. the Chiefs” mindset that has been adopted. For media outlets to focus solely on the social media posts and styles of Mahomes fiancé and his brother and turn that into a narrative this week is beyond tasteless – it’s clown behavior. Sports networks, and especially sports “media” social media giants look a lot more like TMZ in 2022 than they do networks and outlets that actually cover sports in a constructive and informative way. I understand you have to attract Gen-Z impressions, behind Millennials they’re the internet’s second biggest consumer of information and content. But there’s other ways to do that than to mock the fiancé of the NFL’s top quarterback for attempting to turn hate directed at her into a flood of money through merchandise sales for a charity focused on ending bullying. Seems counterproductive.  

Now I will stop falling trap to talking about social media on a sports blog. I apologize. Had to get that off my chest. I myself have been critical or at times exhausted with the future Mrs. Mahomes and Jackson’s antics, but enough is enough. Let them enjoy another playoff run that the person they love the most is spearheading. That has to be an unbelievable experience, let them live. If you don’t want to see it, do what I do and don’t follow them on social media. I promise you they won’t notice, and that way we can all just enjoy this ride. 

Back to the game. We know the opponent, we saw them 4 weeks ago. I covered the matchup strengths and flaws from week 17 earlier this week, but I think there are a few keys we need to cover here as well. Let’s start with the Bengals. Offensively the last time these two teams squared off we know what happened. Ja’Marr Chase touched God and the Chiefs lost a tight one. Joe Burrow was good, but I wouldn’t consider Joe Burrow great in the last performance. It takes two to tango, but when he can throw a ball with his eyes closed and Ja’Marr goes up and gets it no matter where it is, your life as a quarterback gets a little easier. While the Bengals definitely need to get Ja’Marr Chase going to be the best version of their offense, they’re also going to need to take advantage of some matchups they can exploit at the second level of the Chiefs defense. 

Cincinnati also needs to establish the run against the Chiefs on Sunday. In the Bengals last 5 games, they have averaged just 72.8 yards per game running the football for just 3.64 yards per carry. The Bengals offensive line has not produced in the run game like it did earlier in the year, and if the Bengals can’t chew up time on drives with a balanced attack they will give Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs too many possessions, and they can turn those into touchdowns quickly. The Bengals need Joe Mixon and that offensive line to show up in a big way in the run game, but also in pass protection. Joe Burrow was sacked 9 times against the Tennessee Titans last week, and 4 times against the Chiefs in week 17. If the Cinci offensive line can’t protect Burrow, and the Bengals also have trouble establishing the run, Chris Jones and the KC pass rush will be able to pin their ears back and make it a long afternoon for them. 

Defensively, the Bengals have to do a better job of stopping the run this time around. KC rushed for 155 yards and 2 scores on the Bengals run defense, one that was top 5 in the league this year, in the first meeting of the two teams. The Bengals pass defense is another story. The narrative has been that Mahomes did not play well against the Bengals the first time around, but he still managed 259 yards and a 113.9 passing rating throwing 2 TD to no picks. The Chiefs took a 28-14 lead into the half and then had the ball for 12 minutes and 3 possessions in the second half. Penalties were the story of the first game, but the story of this game will be how Cincinnati’s secondary can handle he Chiefs passing attack when they’re on the road in the AFC Championship game. Travis Kelce was in his first game back off of the COVID reserve list, and Tyreek had 6 catches but only 40 yards. Jerick McKinnon did not play. There are going to be a lot of new and revitalized weapons thrown at Eli Apple and co on Sunday, how they react will determine the outcome of this game. 

Defensively for the Chiefs, the answers are simple. Stop the run when Cincinnati tries to bring it at you, and when they abandon it – get after Joe Burrow. Last week against the Bills and Josh Allen the Chiefs pass rush actually generated a lot of pressure. It’s not pressure that will be measured on a stat sheet, but it was pressure that made Josh Allen get out of the pocket, miss receivers, but unfortunately still do Josh Allen things. Joe Burrow cannot do Josh Allen things. The Chiefs had 4 sacks on Burrow the first time around (Chris Jones 2, Jarron Reed and Frank Clark each with 1), and could have a bigger day on Sunday with the Arrowhead crowd feeding them energy all afternoon. Reed got home to Allen last week for one of the Chiefs two sacks, and if he finds the same matchups he had in week 17 against Cincinnati, he could make a big impact from the defensive tackle position. 

The Chiefs linebackers and secondary need to live and die by one word this weekend – communication. It was evident last week the impact that Tyrann Mathieu makes on this defense in his absence. Gabriel Davis erupted for the Bills, and had Mathieu (and Rashard Fenton) been healthy, you would have to expect a different outcome, and a different game altogether. the Bengals receiving trio of Chase, Higgins, and Boyd are as dangerous as anyone in the NFL when faced with a secondary that isn’t on the same page. The Chiefs have the talent to take away some pieces of the Bengals passing attack, but certainly not all of it. Limited YAC yards with sound tackling and keeping plays in front of them will be key in on Sunday. Charvarius Ward (infamously) drew the J’Marr Chase assignment last time, I would expect to see Steve Spagnuolo mix it up this weekend with a combination of Ward and L’Jarius Sneed. Ward is probably a touch better in coverage, but Sneed is physical and could occupy some mental real estate for the rookie in a game with so much on the line. 

Offensively for KC, just keep doing what you’re doing. I don’t need to reiterate what we all already know – the offense is clicking. The offensive line has been dominant since about week 8, and it has been the same story in the playoffs. They’ll be at healthy and deep this weekend against a Bengals front that was great at sacking the QB all year, but didn’t sack Mahomes in week 17. That was with Joe Thuney at left tackle and Nick Allegretti playing at left guard. The Chiefs will need to key on a few things. First, take the thunder and lightning approach out of the backfield with Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon. The Bengals didn’t see much of either in the first matchup, and both present extensive matchup challenges on perimeter defenders for the Bengals defense. Find Travis Kelce. Trust Travis Kelce. Feed Travis Kelce. And finally, put the ball in 15’s hands and let him win you this football game. Forget about Blake Bell under center. No direct snaps. Let Patrick Mahomes be Patrick Mahomes. We will all love the outcome. 

This game is going to come down to who can handle the moment the best. The Cincinnati Bengals have had an impressive season, without a doubt. Joe Burrow will be back in these same situations against Patrick Mahomes and other members of this next generation of both AFC and NFC quarterbacks. Mahomes and the Chiefs are back, once again. After everyone had written them off after a 3-4 start. Clamoring that the league had the blueprint for not just the Kansas City offense, but Mahomes specifically. He was washed up at 26 and the dynasty either never was or never would be. Again the Chiefs won the AFC West. Again the Chiefs won 12 games. Again the Chiefs played a first place schedule (for the fifth straight year, next year will be the sixth consecutive) with primetime games littered throughout and fought to the 2 seed in the AFC. Again Mahomes and the Chiefs host the AFC Championship at Arrowhead Stadium. 

The feeling of hosting a fourth consecutive AFC Championship didn’t really settle in with me until about 6:30 last night. This is something that a select few fans in the history of the sport have gotten to witness at all, and the first time fans have gotten to enjoy it in their home stadium. Arrowhead Stadium was built for this. These Kansas City Chiefs were built for this. No matter how much hate the team attracts from national media and opposing fan bases. No matter how big the target continues to get on the Chiefs back through years of success. No matter how big the stage and the expectations, Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs continue to deliver. Again and again. And again, the Chiefs will hoist the Lamar Hunt AFC Championship trophy in the house that he built and head to their third consecutive Super Bowl. 

Chiefs 35, Bengals 17 Betway

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