The Kansas City Chiefs are once again hosting the AFC Championship, this time hosting the burgeoning Cincinnati Bengals at Arrowhead Stadium with a Super Bowl LVI berth on the line. That’s something the Bengals haven’t. not done since the 1988 season and something the Chiefs have accomplished in consecutive seasons.
This is the second time we will see these two teams face off this season, after the Bengals beat the Chiefs 34-31 in Week 17. The Chiefs do have the home-court advantage this time around though, and this could play a role in the rematch.
Which of these two teams will qualify to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI? We will find out soon enough. But first, let’s break down the match.
How to watch
Dated: Sunday January 30 | Time: 3 p.m. ET
Site: Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Missouri)
TV: SCS | Flux: Paramount+ (click here)
To follow: CBS Sports app
Odds: Leaders -7, O/U 54.5
When the Bengals have the ball
There was a part of the season where the Kansas City defense was playing extremely well. From Weeks 8-16, the Chiefs allowed 20+ points only once and 303+ total yards only twice. After ranking dead last in the EPA (expected points added) per game through the first seven weeks of the season, the Chiefs ranked fourth during that week 8-16 streak, according to Tru Media. Then they played against the Bengals.
Since then, they’ve been allowed at least 21 points in each of their four games and at least 364 total yards in three of four games. In unplayed games against the Steelers’ inept offense, they allowed an average of 31 points and 420 yards per game. The Bengals started with a 34-31 win in Week 17, racking up 475 total yards in that game — 415 of them through the air.
Joe Burrow and Co. repeatedly tested Kansas City corners on the field. His 15.4 percent deep ball rate (over 20 yards on the ground) was his third-best mark of the season. Above all, the Bengals roamed the field with quick passes. On average, Burrow took just 2.46 seconds from snap to throw against the Chiefs — his third fast time of the season. This combination proved deadly, as he repeatedly found Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins on top of cover.
The Bengals are right to try to get rid of the ball quickly. Their offensive line is one of the weakest in football, as we saw last week when it allowed Burrow to be sacked NINE times against the Tennessee Titans. Burrow was sacked 51 times in the NFL this season, and his 8.9% sack rate was actually higher than he was as a rookie. Of course, not all the blame can be placed on the feet of the line. Part of it has to go to Burrow himself. He’s taken a sack on 25.9% of his drops under pressure this season, according to Tru Media. It was the third highest rate in the NFL, behind only Baker Mayfield and Ben Roethlisberger. (For comparison, Patrick Mahomes was only sacked 12.1% of the time when he was pressured.)
Whether or not the Chiefs defensive line is able to turn pressure into sack numbers will determine the effectiveness of Cincinnati’s passing offense in this game. That makes Chris Jones’ game against the Bengals’ inside offensive line especially important, as it will be much harder for Burrow to just hit the top of his drop, put his feet up and shoot if the pocket is pushed back into his knees.
Also very important is how often Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo sends out a blitz. This can help get to Burrow faster and possibly with more consistency, but also leaves your cornerbacks more vulnerable on the perimeter. We saw in the first game between these two teams much of the advantage that Chase and Higgins had against Charvarius Ward and Mike Hughes. Allowing them to work one-on-one again in these matchups is practically asking to be burned by big plays in the passing game. So finding a way to generate pressure while still being able to give assist to those corners should be high on Spagnuolo’s list of priorities in the rematch.
This may mean a more stable regime of Cover-2 and/or Cover-4, so corners aren’t left on an island. This would have the advantage of funneling the passing attack to Tyler Boyd and CJ Uzomah on the inside – unless Burrow can hit a few hole shots against two-deep coverage, between the corner and the safety. Expect plenty of midrange and cornering streaks if the Chiefs try to play more Cover-2, when they could also feed the ball to Joe Mixon against underlying cover and rely on him to break a few tackles and create first tries. Removing defenders from the box could also allow Cincinnati’s running game to be more effective than it was the first time these two teams played.
When the Chiefs have the ball
Coming off of one of the greatest games in NFL history, Patrick Mahomes will have a chance to redo against a Bengals defense that didn’t exactly thwart him, but didn’t necessarily turn on either. Mahomes finished Game 1 between those two teams 26 of 35 for 259 yards and two touchdowns, and with his seventh-highest rating of the season in both passer rating and EPA per play average.
One thing to note is that the Bengals used soft covers frequently against Kansas City, which allowed Mahomes to average 3.09 seconds from snap to throw — his second-best mark of the year. Cincinnati blitzed even less often (10.8% dropouts) than the average team against Mahomes this season (11.2%), which was already a rate well below the league average (25, 7%). The Bengals have played Cover-2, Cover-4 or Cover-6 on 17 of Mahomes’ 35 dropbacks — plays on which he completed 13 of 17 passes for just 93 yards. He went 13 of 18 for 166 yards and two scores otherwise.
His top two receivers, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, combined for 11 receptions on 17 targets, but those catches yielded just 65 total yards — an average of just 3.8 per target. Striving at all costs to win the ball deep has paid off for Lou Anarumo’s unit.
Still, the extent to which two high-security covers are a “solution” for this Chiefs passing attack has been greatly exaggerated. Mahomes has consistently finished fifth in the NFL in EPA per game against Cover-2, Cover-4 and Cover-6 this season, for example. The Bills used one of those three covers on 34 of Mahomes’ 53 throwbacks last week, and he shredded it to the tune of 22 of 39 for 207 yards, and an EPA per-play average that would have been the best in the league by a significant margin. He also lit up the Steelers when they played two in the wild card round.
Running back Jerick McKinnon’s added threat as a tackle breaker on low targets and swing routes also presents a new dimension for Kansas City’s offense. McKinnon had 11 catches for 135 yards and a score in Kansas City’s two playoff games. Clyde Edwards-Helaire finished with just 129 receiving yards all season. Darrel Williams had a monster receiving day against the Raiders but was otherwise an ordinary pass-catching threat. McKinnon is much more dynamic than the two fullbacks who have spent most of the season ahead of him on the depth chart.
With no blitzers out, the Bengals will rely on their defensive front to do the lion’s share of the job of pressing Mahomes. Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard should each have their moments against Orlando Brown and Andrew Wylie on the outside, but the Bengals could struggle to get much pressure in the middle. It will be important for edge rushers to maintain lane integrity so they don’t let Mahomes get up through the pocket or out to the perimeter, where he can play with his legs as well as his arm.
Kansas City Chiefs -7
Prediction: Chiefs 33, Bengals 31