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Five things to watch: Bengals at Chiefs

WR Ja'Marr Chase celebrates a touchdown during the first quarter of the Bengals-Bills divisional game at Highmark Stadium on Sunday, January 22 2023.
WR Ja'Marr Chase celebrates a touchdown during the first quarter of the Bengals-Bills divisional game at Highmark Stadium on Sunday, January 22 2023.

The Bengals head to GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game Sunday. The game airs at 6:30 p.m. on CBS. Here are five things to watch:

1. Confident secondary vs. top-ranked passing attack

Kansas City led the NFL in total offense during the regular season (413.6 yards per game), largely fueled by league-best 297.8 average passing yards. Steering that attack was MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes, who paced the league in passing yards (5250) and touchdowns (41) while also ranking in the top three in completions (435) and passer rating (105.2). Despite an ankle injury sustained in the last week's divisional round win over Jacksonville, Mahomes remains an elite pocket passer who has thrown just once interception in his last five games (167).

On Sunday, Mahomes will face a Bengals secondary that has seven picks over its last six games dating back to Week 13. Cincinnati also held opposing passers to just a 58.9 completion percentage in the regular season, the lowest rate in the league, while its 17 passing touchdowns given up tied for the third-fewest. If the back end of Lou Anarumo's unit can confuse Mahomes and possibly force a turnover, as it did in the second half and overtime of last year's AFC Championship, it could serve as a key contributor to the Bengals once again hoisting the Lamar Hunt Trophy.

2. Building on run game momentum

The Bengals rushed for 152 yards against Kansas City in the Week 13 win, their second-highest total of the season despite being without Joe Mixon. Mixon is coming off a big performance of his own at Buffalo, where he churned out 105 yards on 20 carries (5.3 per), including four runs of 10 or more yards. Cincinnati as a team posted 172 rushing yards against a Bills defense that allowed just 104.6 per contest during the regular season (fifth in NFL). This week, the Bengals will try to replicate that success versus a Kansas City front that ranked eighth in run defense (107.2). Mixon, Samaje Perine and company establishing a consistent threat on the ground would make way for a balanced offensive approach in a hostile environment.

3. Battle of elite pass catchers

It's been well-established how large of a role Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce play in their respective offenses, but both players have found a way to raise their production when it matters most. In the Super Bowl era (1966-present), Kelce's 86.5 receiving yards per game rank as the fifth-most among all players who have appeared in at least six postseason games. Chase is sixth on that list with 85.5 yards per game.

Kelce is coming off a monster performance in the divisional round versus Jacksonville. His 14 catches were the most ever by a non-running back in a playoff game, while the rest of the Chiefs combined for 13 receptions. Chase, meanwhile, has paced the Bengals in catches and receiving yards in both of their wins this postseason, and also has a touchdown catch in back-to-back weeks. Since their playoff debuts (Kelce in 2015, Chase in '21), both players lead their position group in playoff receptions and yards.

4. Bengals getting out to hot start

Much of Cincinnati's recent success has stemmed from its ability to build early leads. The Bengals have outscored opponents 39-0 in the first quarter over their last four games, and offensively they've come up with a touchdown on the opening drive seven times this season. Defensively, Cincinnati has not allowed a first-quarter touchdown since Week 6 at New Orleans, the longest such streak in the NFL since New England went 14 games in 2016.

In last year's AFC Championship, the Bengals had to claw their way back from a 21-3 deficit in the second quarter. While Burrow and Zac Taylor have each expressed confidence in the team's ability to win no matter how the game plays out, it could serve them well to jump out in front as they have over the past month.

5. Offensive line aims for repeat performance

Cincinnati's offensive line, which was without three starters in the divisional round at Buffalo, put together perhaps its best effort of the season. Burrow was sacked just once on a third-down scramble, and O-line coach Frank Pollack's group paved the way for 172 net rushing yards. The unit will face a greater test this week, however, as the Chiefs tallied an AFC-best 55 sacks during the regular season. Leading the charge on Kansas City's defensive front is Chris Jones, the only defensive tackle since 1982 with multiple seasons of 15-plus sacks.

If the Bengals can keep Jones, defensive end Frank Clark and the rest of the Chiefs' pass rushers away from Burrow, the offense could have its way against a young Kansas City secondary. Cincinnati is 23-3 since 2021 when Burrow is sacked fewer than four times.