It's one of those games that even before it starts the matchup transforms a ticket stub into cherished nostalgia. The two Mount Rushmore meetings between Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and Chiefs counterpart Patrick Mahomes have been Burrow walk-offs and when they meet Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium you have to believe who ever has the ball last wins.
It all comes down to time and it's one of those times the Bengals.com Media Roundtable is split right down the middle, just like the first and second half of a Bengals-Chiefs game.
With the return of Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase to a team that averaged 28 points per game in his absence, the Cincinnati contingent of Cleveland.com's Mohammad Ahmad and The Dayton Daily News' Laurel Pfahler pick the Bengals to outscore the NFL's highest-scoring team. Kansas City reporters Adam Teicher of ESPN.com and Nate Taylor of The Athletic believe the Chiefs have improved their defense enough to fend off Burrow's second-ranked red zone offense.
Let's go around The Table. Since it is Ahmad's first appearance, he bats leadoff.
If you look at the playoffs and regular-season matchup from last year, it's going to be super close. If it doesn't come down to the last drive, I would not be shocked if it goes to overtime. It's a tough one because l do believe you have two of the best teams, but ultimately I think the Bengals have the confidence. They've seen this team twice. They've made so many adjustments, I think they'll be used to a different Kansas City team that doesn't have wide receiver Tyreek Hill and other personnel.
I think with Ja'Marr back and the way wide receiver Tee Higgins has been playing and everything else that has been working for the Bengals, I think we'll see high scoring from both teams, much like we saw in the first game last season. And a little more than that game that the Bengals won, 34-31.
THE EDGE: Ja'Marr is back, he's healthy, he's confident. He went for (266) yards last year in one of those games against the Chiefs and that's a reason I'm going with a higher score. BENGALS, 37-34
Kansas City is the top team in the AFC, but the Bengals are playing their best football right now and doing it with depth. Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase's return only makes them more dangerous, and this is a game where I could see the Chiefs just coming out flat, despite the "revenge" factor possibly motivating them.
The Chiefs secondary isn't dominant, and Cincinnati's receivers can beat them. Ultimately, I think the Bengals defense is the difference, especially if they can get those turnovers. Kansas City ranks 25th in turnover margin at minus-3.
THE EDGE: The crowd at Paycor Stadium will be jumping after the team's recent success and with the hype of this matchup. I think that factors into some mistakes for Patrick Mahomes with an interception or two. Cincinnati wins again. BENGALS, 31-27.
I love how this has now become a full-blown rivalry. I think if Ja'Marr Chase is fully healthy it will have a massive impact on the game. I think the Bengals are pretty equal to the Chiefs, but for a rivalry to reach its peak I think the Chiefs will have to win. Statistically, they're the better team, so I think it's a race to 30. The Chiefs have scored 30 points more times this season. They lead the league in points per game and Mahomes is playing at an elite level.
I think the Chiefs defense is slightly better than it was a year ago with tackle Chris Jones having a career year. I get the sense the game is immensely important from a psychological motivation factor for the Chiefs because of obviously what happened last season. I expect a playoff atmosphere. And a very entertaining game.
THE EDGE: The Chiefs' win sets up an even more intriguing re-match potentially in the playoffs. CHIEFS, 30-26.
Last year one of the games had to go to overtime and the other game came right down to the end and I figure it's going to be like that again. I don't think there's a whole a lot separating these teams. I wonder how the Chiefs handle some of the wrinkles the Bengals threw at them in the second half and if the Bengals will do the same thing on Sunday or whether they change their tactics. The Chiefs didn't handle that very well (the Bengals dropping eight defenders), I thought they'd get some of that this year. They haven't really seen much of it, but the Chiefs have to handle whatever adjustments the Bengals make better than they did in the championship game.
The Chiefs secondary is doing a pretty good job. Three of their top four cornerbacks are rookies, but they're playing well and one of the big differences is their pass rush is way better than it was last year and even the year before. They've got 21 sacks in the last five games and they're not covering for a long time generally speaking with Chris Jones being a more consistent presence than he's ever been. He can wreck a game.
THE EDGE: This is the best team the Chiefs have had since head coach Andy Reid has been there. I don't have a stat that proves that. They lead the league in scoring and they've done that before, but I think they're more well-rounded. I'm taking the Chiefs, but I wouldn't be surprised if it goes the other way. CHIEFS, 33-30
THE BOTTOM LINE
Last season the AFC Championship in Kansas City came down to the Bengals stopping the Chiefs in the red zone as the clock ran out in each half. It comes down to inside-the-20 again, as most games usually do, and nothing in the league has been hotter than the Bengals' second-ranked red zone offense. They figure to have the edge against a Chiefs defense ranked last in red zone defense. But KC head coach Andy Reid no doubt spent a good amount of time emphasizing it this week after the Chiefs offense went 1-for-6 in there during last Sunday's 26-10 win over the Rams.
That included a Mahomes' interception, his second in the red zone this season. But he's already got 24 touchdowns in there of his NFL-leading 29 TD passes. Burrow doesn't have a red-zone pick this season (he hasn't thrown one in 364 days dating back to the Chargers game at Paycor) and has 14 of his 23 touchdown passes inside the red zone. That's the kind of stuff that's going to count Sunday.
Like Reid Xing and Oing against Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo after the Chiefs failed to score touchdowns in both second halves last season. With a glittering .638 winning percentage, Reid has the fifth most wins of all-time with 242, but only two have come against the Bengals in seven games. And they're 18 years apart with the Eagles' Donovan McNabb beating the Bengals' Scott Mitchell in 2000 and Mahomes beating Andy Dalton in 2018. Now Reid comes in with the NFL's top-ranked offense and Anarumo's guys allowing more than 23 points just three times. But we're in the red zone again, where the Chiefs are sixth best in scoring touchdowns and the Bengals are sixth best in preventing them.
Burrow may be 2-0 vs. Mahomes, but he's facing a much better Kansas City pass rush and a much faster (and younger) secondary. The Chiefs are eighth in sacks per pass and a week after they cooled off Titans tackle Jeffery Simmons, the Bengals have to contended with Chris Jones, leading all interior players with ten sacks.
Next best on the club is old friend Carlos Dunlap with four sacks coming off the edge. His last one was the 100th of his career, putting him eighth on the active list. His first 82.5 came in 11 seasons with the Bengals before he was traded during the 2020 season. He's not just a third-down player in KC at age 33. He's playing 46 percent of the snaps. But next in sacks is cornerback L'Jarius Snead with 3.5.
The Chiefs are in the top ten in blitzing and QB takedowns, but the Bengals offensive line is improving enough that Burrow has been sacked just five times in the three-game winning streak. He'll be working against a fleet of rookie cornerbacks on a defense that is allowing the third highest passer rating (99.2) and the third most TD passes (22) in the league.
It's a long-ball duel between the two passers with the most touchdown passes of at least 40 yards in the 2020s. Burrow has 16 and Mahomes has 13, tied with Russell Wilson. But it's a matchup that has been and probably will be decided inside the 20.