Stop us if you’ve heard this before: The Kansas City Chiefs host the Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. It’s a rematch of last year’s conference title game and the fourth time these teams have met in the last 13 months.
The Bengals won those previous three meetings. Can they make it four?
Certainly. But these three things need to go their way.
3 Keys to Victory for Bengals in AFC Championship Game
This exercise doesn’t take a ton of imagination. The Bengals already know how to beat the Chiefs. In fact, they have K.C.’s number — even if the three games have been decided by three points each.
During their three-game winning streak, the Bengals have:
- Outgained the Chiefs through the air by an average of 77 yards per game.
- Won the time of possession battle by more than eight minutes.
- Held a +2 advantage in the turnover margin.
- Sacked Mahomes six times.
- Outscored the Chiefs 26-16 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
But as they say in the world of finance, past performance is not indicative of future results — a reality Zac Taylor seems to grasp.
“At the end of the day, it feels like we played them a really long time ago,” Taylor said this week.
“I don’t even know how many games ago it was, to be quite honest with you. I don’t even know what month it was in, but you know teams continue to evolve. And different strengths pop up, different weaknesses pop up. So you got to do the whole game planning thing all over again and get your guys ready to go play in a tough environment against a great team.”
So what do the Bengals need to do this time around?
Get Patrick Mahomes on the Move
Usually, this would be a really, really dumb idea.
Mahomes is probably the best improvisational quarterback in the world. He’s a magician who regularly overcomes bad mechanics (and risky decisions) with unparalleled natural feel and playmaking ability.
But that version of Mahomes probably will not show up at Arrowhead Stadium this weekend. Mahomes’ mobility will be a liability, not a strength, in the conference title game because of a high ankle sprain suffered in the Divisional Round.
After getting hurt last week, Mahomes didn’t attempt a single pass outside of the pocket. If B.J. Hill and D.J. Reader can get pressure up the middle and get Mahomes on the move, the Chiefs’ passing game could get really funky.
(Don’t) Establish the Run
Taylor — who has never met a first-down run he didn’t love — is going to have to fight his worst impulses and trust Joe Burrow to keep being Joe Burrow.
In the teams’ three meetings the last two seasons, the Bengals have been far more efficient through the air (9.0 yards per attempt) than on the ground (4.1 yards per carry).
Burrow is playing as well as any quarterback in football right now, and Ja’Marr Chase absolutely owns the Chiefs (24 catches for 417 yards and four touchdowns on 29 targets). Including the playoffs, the Bengals this year were fifth in passing EPA per play (.089).
Cincinnati should lean into its strength.
Put the Game Away Early
At some point, these close finishes are going to burn the Bengals. They trailed late in two of their wins over Kansas City since Jan. 1, 2022. And the score was tied in the fourth quarter of the other games.
That’s living dangerously, even against a diminished Mahomes. One-score games basically become coin flips when the sample size gets big enough. And that’s just the historical average.
Expecting to continue to pull out close games against Mahomes, who has 13 fourth-quarter comebacks and 14 game-winning drives in his career, is foolish.