The Bengals, the only team to beat the two-time AFC champion Chiefs in Kansas City's dozen games since Nov. 1, get a rematch in Sunday's AFC title game (3 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Arrowhead Stadium. Remember when the two quarterbacks said "See you in the playoffs," after the Bengals won back on Jan. 2?
It's a sweet twist for Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, whose debut came in that building against these Chiefs in the 2019 preseason opener Kanas City rolled up 400 yards in a 38-17 win. Now Taylor and the man he once worked for, Rams head coach Sean McVay, are a game away from meeting in the Super Bowl three years after they helped Los Angeles get there.
On Sunday the Rams stunned the Bucs at the gun in Tampa Bay much like the Bengals did the Titans Saturday night in Nashville on Evan McPherson's walk-off 52-yard field goal. Bengals-Chiefs starts Championship Sunday and Rams-49ers ends it with the winners meeting two weeks later in Los Angeles in the Super Bowl.
Taylor, 38, the sixth youngest coach to reach a conference final in the 52 years of the merger, has in Joe Burrow the first quarterback taken with the overall first pick to play for a conference championship in his first or second season.
So the Bengals and their quarterback are the new kids in town. The year after McVay's Rams went to the Super Bowl and lost to the Patriots, the Chiefs beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl following the 2019 season. Now the Chiefs are hosting the AFC title game for the fourth straight season.
Standing between Cincinnati's first Super Bowl trip in 33 years is one of the young gun quarterbacks who already has a Super Bowl ring and MVP trophy in Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, fresh off one of the greatest moments in NFL history in Sunday night's 42-36 victory over the shell-shocked Bills amid the Arrowhead din.
Mahomes' 16 points in the final five minutes spanning regulation and overtime overcame two deficits and broke a tie. He did it on a microwave 177 yards passing against the Bills' top-rated pass defense and overall defense, which shows just how well the Bengals defense played in the second half of the 34-31 win back on Jan. 2 at Paul Brown Stadium that gave them the AFC North title.
Burrow generated plenty of comeback yards himself that day in clawing the Bengals from a 14-point deficit three times. He was able to outlast Mahomes with 446 yards and four touchdowns because the Bengals defense held Sir Patrick to 50 yards passing in the second half while limiting dangerous wide receiver Tyreek Hill to 40 yards and future Hall-of-Fame tight and Travis Kelce to 25 for the game.
Consider that Mahomes began Saturday night's comeback with 62 seconds left on a vintage 64-yard-catch-and-run touchdown by Hill. Then in the last four-and-half minutes, Kelce caught 48 yards to set up the tying field goal and make the winning catch.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo had to give something to get something that day and his starters gave up their season-high 155 yards rushing when the Chiefs didn't have their best running back that day in Clyde Edwards-Helaire, yet another LSU teammate of Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
Edwards-Helaire returned to the lineup Saturday and went for 60 yards on seven carries in a game Mahomes was their leading rusher with 69 yards on seven carries, too.
Taylor says there's no advantage to playing the Chiefs with such fresh tape.
"I think all that matters is our team has a lot of confidence right now and we believe that we belong," Taylor said in a Sunday afternoon Zoom. "You know some of the guys made the comment that people have tried to put the underdog card on us. We don't subscribe to that. We believe that we're as good as any team in the NFL and so whoever we play, we play. We'll have to go on the road and have a great game."
But it was nice having the work done on the Chiefs and his coaches did enough work on the Bills to give them Sunday night off to watch.
"We just played Kansas City three weeks ago so we've got all that stuff broken down," Taylor said. "They've done a great job on Buffalo, so tonight we'll give the chance for the coaches to go home watch the game with their family and we'll be back first thing in the morning ready to get started on whoever we're playing."
Tight end C.J. Uzomah also was comfortable with playing either team.
"It's playoff football. It's gloves off. It's a street fight," Uzomah said. "You're saying we have tape on Kansas City. They have tape on us. You can say the exact same. That does not matter. Whoever we're going to get we're going to get their best shot. If we play KC, it's going to be different than the time before. I'm going to be watching not as a fan, but watching as someone who is dissecting film, which is going to be fun at this time of the year. It doesn't really matter."
Free safety Jessie Bates III said the defensive backs would most likely watch the game together. But they weren't going to be pulling for either team. At least not Bates.
"It's a weird question that everybody's been asking, ever since we won the game, 'Who do you guys want? Who do you guys want?' At the end of the day, that's not anything we can control," Bates said. "We did our part. We earned a Week 20 now, and whoever that team is, we got to go in and it's going to be a dog fight again. A good thing that we can kick our feet up and watch who we're going to play. Let those guys beat up on each other a little bit and get back to work on Monday."
The Chiefs have an estimable 1-2 punch of pass rushers up front in Frank Clark on the edge (4.5 sacks during the season) and tackle Chris Jones (9) and that's going to be doubly sensitive after Burrow got sacked nine times in Tennessee. Against the Chiefs he went down four times and got hit six more (Jones had two), but Pro Football Focus charged just two of the sacks to the offensive line.
A look back at the Bengals-Chiefs series through the years.
"There's a lot of positive to take away from our guys," Taylor said of his offensive line after it gave up Burrow's personal high in sacks. "Every week we're going to be playing against a really good defense we understand that. There's always going to be room for improvement. But again, I've got a lot faith. They're doing what we need to do to win these games. Everyone is going to write about these nine sacks but it's not all on the offensive line, it's on all of us. That part needs to be put in the right context and again they'll improve in the areas they can improve in."
As much as the Bengals are bracing for Jones and Clark (the Chiefs hit Bills quarterback Josh Allen twice Saturday), Kansas City has to be re-checking what to do with Chase. For a good part of the game they were one-on-one on with Chase while he broke the rookie record and any Bengals record with 266 yards. With Pro Bowl safety Tyrann Mathieu out with a concussion, early in the game, the Chiefs gave up another 200-yard receiving game, a 201-yarder to Gabriel Davis, a guy that came in with 35 catches for the season.
"You can say it is the Ja'Marr-Joe chemistry. It's there, obviously. But it's more his trust in all of us," Uzomah said. "To be where we're going to be. To run the route the way he sees it as it's progressing. The trust he has in us and the faith that we have he's going to throw the ball where it needs to be when we run the route and the way he wants it to be run is just … you can't teach that."
Another thing you can't each. Experience. While Taylor goes into his first championship game, the Chiefs' Andy Reid goes into his ninth and fourth straight in Kansas City. But Taylor is 2-0 in the postseason with the Bengals' first road playoff win in his pocket as the Bengals (2-0) try to remain unbeaten in AFC title games.