The Cincinnati Bengals bring the Kansas City Chiefs season to a disappointing end, defeating the Chiefs in the AFC Championship at Arrowhead Stadium to advance to Super Bowl LVI.
Chiefs Focus @ChiefsFocus Charles Robinson @CRob5769
- Cincinnati Bengals 27, Kansas City Chiefs 24 (OT)
- Patrick Mahomes : 26 for 39, 275 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT
- Travis Kelce – 10 receptions, 95 yards, 1 TD
- Jerick McKinnon – 12 carriers, 65 yards
- Cincinnati : trailed 21-3 with 5:04 to play in the second quarter. Their 18 point comeback ties the largest in Conference Championship game history.
- The Bengals have a chance to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history. They will take on the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in LA in Super Bowl LVI.
It was the best of times, then it promptly turned into the worst of times.
The Kansas City Chiefs season ended on Sunday with a disappointing loss to the AFC’s 4th seed Cincinnati Bengals. The Chiefs second loss to the Bengals in 4 weeks is one that certainly stings far worse than the first, and will inevitably sting for the next few weeks and months for the Chiefs and Chiefs Kingdom. What does the fall out look like? We won’t know the answers to this right off the cuff, as bad as we may want them. One thing is absolutely certain – with 24 unrestricted free agents and 4 restricted free agents coming to the end of their current deals with the Chiefs, the team will look different in 2022. Change is heading to the Kingdom, whether we like it or not.
Before we get to the (brief) speculation on what may happen over the course of the next several months and reflect on what this loss means in the long term, I’ll try to answer the million-dollar question that everyone reading this has after yesterday. The look was stamped on the face of every fan at Arrowhead yesterday. It was being posed (in both educated and uneducated ways) on social media in the hours after the game and in to today. While they stood and answered the media and addressed the situation head one, it’s also a question the players and coaches must be asking themselves as well.
What the hell actually happened?
The Chiefs looked like they had the same magic in the bottle to start this game that they had captured from the second quarter of the Wild Card game against Pittsburgh all the way through the overtime win against the Bills. The offense was clicking. The defense was aggressive, forcing 2 punts on the first 3 drives for the Cincinnati offense. The Chiefs raced out to a 21-3 lead on Cincinnati and the celebration of a third straight AFC Championship felt like a formality yesterday around 3 PM. By 5:15, the Kingdom was dejected, and Joe Burrow was raising the Lamar Hunt trophy in Arrowhead Stadium as the visiting quarterback.
Let’s not sugar coat this. The Chiefs choked this game away. With a big lead and an entire half of football in front of them, the players and coaches both took their foot off of the gas pedal and played the type of conservative football that brought back ghosts of Chiefs playoff past. The game began with Mahomes finding Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and Mecole Hardman all for touchdowns in the first half. The team would not score another touchdown, even on a half-baked play call to end the first half a the Cincinnati goal line. That is where the play calling issues on the offensive side of the football began, but far from where they ended. In a season where, at times, the offense loaded with talent had fans scratching their heads wondering what the deal was it’s almost fitting that it ended this way.
Jerick McKinnon was slashing the Bengals defense in the first half. In the first 4 drives of the second half, McKinnon had 4 carriers. Total. The Chiefs ran the ball 6 times total in those 4 drives, in 18 plays total in a half where they started with a 21-10 lead. The Bengals defense dropped 8 defenders into coverage on 45% of the snaps in the second half. 3 players rushing the passer/defending the run. The Chiefs neglected the fact that their screen game had worked nearly to perfection against the Steelers and Bills – both units better than Cincinnati on the season. They neglected the fact that, when things were covered up down field, Patrick Mahomes made plays with his legs last week to soften the Buffalo pass rush and make them respect the run, freeing up receivers down field for big plays to seal the game. Even more egregiously, the Chiefs coaching staff ignored the fact that earlier in the same game they had gotten what they wanted on the ground against this team. Sure, they handed it off on the final drive to salt away the last 6 minutes and tie the game. But with the mental error on the call at the goal line at the end of the second quarter combined with the insistence on sticking with the passing game when Cincinnati was begging us to run, the Chiefs offensive coaching staff and head coach Andy Reid neglected an opportunity to return to the Super Bowl for a third consecutive season.
The Chiefs offensive unit had found great success in the previous 5 games getting the supporting cast involved early. Demarcus Robinson, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, Blake Bell, Noah Grey – all of them had seen first half targets in games where they had produced, which built confidence early. Hardman was involved in the first half, but not gone to again until the fourth quarter. Pringle was targeted sparingly throughout the game. After an entire first half of almost exclusively running the football and/or targeting Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce in the passing game, the Chiefs coaching staff completely flipped the switch and going in every direction but up in the second half. Demarcus Robinson was targeted 3 times. Once in regulation, when Mahomes forced a designed screen to him that was picked off by BJ Hill – a play where Travis Kelce was in single coverage and Tyreek Hill was wide open on the other side of the formation had Mahomes looked – and the first two plays of overtime. The guy hadn’t seen a live ball since warmups, and the Chiefs decide to go to him when it matters the most. This, in a nutshell, sums up the Chiefs offensive strategy in the second half and overtime yesterday.
Defensively, Steve Spagnuolo and his staff again refused to adjust to Cincinnati’s gameplan. From the beginning of the game, it was evident that Cincinnati was on to the fact that KC was going to try to take Ja’Marr Chase away after he dominated in the first meeting. For the most part, they did. But Tee Higgins was Cincinnati’s ticket to moving the sticks, Rashad Fenton had absolutely nothing working in the form of slowing him down, and Spags did nothing about it. Having L’Jarius Sneed and Charvarius Ward take turns on Chase was without a doubt a good call, but when you see Higgins killing you does the thought to shift one of your taller (Ward and Sneed are both 6’1”, Fenton 5’11” – generously) corners over to take on the bigger bodied Higgins?
The Chiefs also failed to take advantage of an incredibly obvious matchup advantage – the KC defensive front against the Bengals notably bad offensive line. The Chiefs starting defensive line played far more snaps than the backups (Chris Jones, Melvin Ingram, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark all registered over 50 snaps, ~74% of the defensive snaps total) but the rotations were mixed and matched, and the full fury of the KC defensive front never got an opportunity to get a groove. That meant they didn’t get the pressure on Joe Burrow that they needed to impact this game. Melvin Ingram sacked Burrow, but that was it. Tennessee got to him last week 9 times. 9 times. 8 of those were with their front 4. Sure, Cincinnati adjusted and played better, but the fruit was there for the Chiefs defense to pick, and because the staff wanted to get creative with front and personnel grouping and neglected the opportunity to further limit Cincinnati’s offense.
I’m not going to go off on Patrick Mahomes, because everyone else is doing that for me. That’s short-sighted. The quarterback who lit the world on fire and was dubbed the “Grim Reaper” 8 days ago is the same quarterback who struggled mightily in the second half yesterday. The guy who won the duel with Josh Allen for the NFL’s crown is the same guy who watched Joe Burrow hoist the hardware that matters on his home field. He lit the Bengals up in the first half, and didn’t do much but get sacked and throw picks in the second half of overtime. The problem is not that he doesn’t have “it”, the problem is that he needs to check out of some of the atrocious play calls that got us into this situation. The problem is that he needs to tuck the ball and pickup 5 yards instead of running around in the backfield, eventually getting sacked. These things are correctable with practice and film study. They’ll be fixed. It’s just that the prospect of wasting a year of Mahomes and the Chiefs window is a harrowing thought to sit with.
Give it to the Bengals, they knew what happened last time and they were ready to capitalize again. This time, it got them a Super Bowl berth. It likely got Joe Burrow a media leg up on Mahomes in the “whos’ the next GOAT” debate. We know what’s next for the Bengals, but what about the Chiefs?
Well, there will be tough decisions to make with the roster. Guys like Tyrann Mathieu, Orlando Brown, Melvin Ingram, and Charvarius Ward are free agents. What do we do there? Who do we bring back? There are extension talks looming with Tyreek Hill. Free agency in the NFL, in general, will be chock full of talent that the Chiefs likely could attract given the cast that these prospective players could be joining.
But the AFC is tightening up. The Bills aren’t going anywhere, and neither are the Bengals. Justin Herbert and the Chargers will be improved next season. There could be a reigning MVP joining the party, depending on what the future holds for Aaron Rodgers. One thing is certain, though. There is not a head coach like Andy Reid in the AFC, and there is not a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes. We have not “witnessed” history as Chiefs fans, we are still witnessing it.
After week 7, no one expected this club to be in the AFC Championship game for a fourth straight season. Some didn’t even expect us to be a playoff team. But the Chiefs rallied, the Chiefs won the AFC West for a 6th year in a row, and they did in fact play in a fourth consecutive AFC Championship. Comparing the Chiefs run to any other run in the history of the league is not worth the effort – each team, coach, quarterback have different experiences, opportunities, and opponents to tackle throughout the course of a run like this. The Chiefs time is not done, but this iteration of the Chiefs is a thing of the past. That’s not a bad thing. This team gave us a hell of a ride this season, and nearly took it back. They will be back next year reloaded and ready to make another run at a Lombardi Trophy. While a victory Monday would have been much, much sweeter, we’ll look ahead to what next season brings with the same hope and excitement that we have in every season of the Patrick Mahomes era.
It’s important that we look ahead with confidence, as well – the leadership in Kansas City is unparalleled in the NFL. Trust the process, trust the people, and get ready for another run in 2022.