A quick check list of what may be the decisive matchups in Sunday's AFC title game rematch (6:30-p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) between the defending champion Bengals and runner-up Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium:
JOE LAW VS. LAW OF AVERAGES: No quarterback has ever won back-to-back conference championship games on the road. No AFC North quarterback has ever won back-to-back conference championship games anywhere. No quarterback has ever beaten Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes four straight times.
So can Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow go where no man has ever gone before? Why not?
Burrow is the only quarterback to beat Mahomes three straight times. Other than Mahomes, he's the only AFC quarterback ever to win at least 13 straight games in December and January after snapping Mahomes' record 17 straight in this game a year ago. That 18-point comeback win in Arrowhead matched the 2006 Colts win over the Patriots for the largest ever in a conference championship game.
BENGALS C TED KARRAS VS. CHIEFS DT CHRIS JONES: Compare the number of words spoken and said about the ankle Mahomes injured and the knee Karras tweaked during last Sunday's AFC Divisionals. Not even close, but in a very large sense Karras practicing every day full is just as big for the Bengals as Mahomes going full is for the Chiefs. Karras has kept the integrity of the pocket since he arrived to do exactly that this season and here's the biggest test as Jones brings in his monstrous 15. 5 sacks in along with his NFL-best pressures by a defensive lineman. Jones didn't have a sack in the Bengals' win last December (the Chiefs only had one) and he's playing with some pressure. He's still looking for his first postseason sack in his 14th playoff game.
"The first thing that makes Jones so good is he's very tall (6-5), probably the tallest interior tackle in the NFL," Karras said last week. "He has very good football savvy. Very good play strength and a good get-off.
"(In the last Chiefs game) we had a lot of great individual performers and we were together in protection. Getting a double on him when we got the chance."
BENGALS RB JOE MIXON VS. CHIEFS S JUSTIN REID, JUAN THORNHILL: After all is said and done, Mixon may turn out to be the most valuable weapon in defenses' all-out assault to take away the deep ball. According to Next Gen Stats, the Chiefs have used a light box on 53 percent of runs this season. Mixon missed the win over the Chiefs Dec. 4, but the back who did play, Samaje Perine, ran against a light box on 18 times for 95 yards. Mixon took over the title game last season in overtime with five runs for 28 yards to finish off an 88-yard game where he ran against a light box seven times and averaged seven yards per carry. According to Pro Football Reference, Reid and Thornhill have combined to miss 17 tackles this season for one of the highest numbers by a safety tandem and play two backs Sunday in Mixon and Perine who had about 100 yards after contact last week in Buffalo.
BENGALS WRS JA'MARR CHASE, TEE HIGGINS VS. CHIEFS CBS JOSHUA WILIAMS, JAYLEN WATSON, TRENT MCDUFFIE: Those are all rookies for the Chiefs and according to Next Gen Stats, it's advantage, Bengals. Chase leads all wide receivers with +134 Yards After Catch over Expected on quick passes this season, while the Chiefs defense has allowed 6.2 yards after quick passes this season, fifth most in the league while Chiefs defensive backs have missed 79 tackles this season, seventh most according to Pro Football Focus. According to PFF, Williams gave up 73 yards to Chase and Higgins back on Dec. 4. Plus, Next Gen Stats says Higgins' 123.7 passer rating when targeted aligned wide in 2022 is the second highest in the league and he's due. He had a big title game last season with 103 yards on six catches. He has seven catches for 65 yards in the playoffs this season.
BENGALS EDGE SAM HUBBARD VS. CHIEFS QB PATRICK MAHOMES: Hubbard's back-to-back red zone sacks in the final minute of last year's title game paved the way for overtime and underscored the Bengals' stunning second half success against Mahomes in all three wins over him that began on Jan. 2, 2022. Per Next Gen Stats against Mahomes, the Bengals defense has five sacks on 49 dropbacks in the second half and OT opposed to one sack in 58 dropbacks in the first half. Mahomes has thrown no touchdowns and has two picks in the second of those three games to go with a 54.5 passer rating compared to a 105 against everyone else in the second half. It will be recalled back on Dec. 4 Mahomes' last possession ended with edge Joseph Ossai's sack.
BENGALS LBS GERMAINE PRATT, LOGAN WILSON VS. CHIEFS TE TRAVIS KELCE: *Mahomes and Kelce are one of the most devastating combos of all time, especially this time of year. Mahomes has 12 touchdown passes to Kelce in playoffs, second only to Tom Brady-Rob Gronkowski. And Kelce needs one to tie John Stallworth for the most receiving touchdowns in conference championship games since the merger. He was at it again last week in Jacksonville with a postseason record 14 catches to go with two touchdowns and 98 yards.
The Bengals work on Kelce has been immense in these three games and they do it with a host of different players and positions. Back on Dec. 4 the Bengals held him to four catches for 56 yards and blew up his longest play of the day when Pratt wrenched the ball from Kelce for the game-turning fumble. In last year's title game, Kelce was a huge factor with 10 catches for 95 yards and a touchdown, but that was softened by the fact he got just 40 of them in the second half, which has been a hallmark of the Bengals in their six playoff games with defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. In the second half of those games, the Bengals are giving six points per game and have come up with seven interceptions while giving up three touchdown passes.
Kelce is going to see different faces and combos Sunday, but the key is for Wilson and Pratt to control the middle of the field for a defense that has come up with 12 takeaways in its six playoff games and one in each of the last seven fourth quarters of this season.