BENGALS QB JOE BURROW VS. CHIEFS QB PATRICK MAHOMES
Anything is possible Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when two of the league's most creative young artists jam Paul Brown Stadium in a quarterback rock star concert pitting Burrow's Bengals and Mahomes' Chiefs for NFL playoff riches.
Mahomes, in his fifth season with both his NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP, is liable to throw touchdown passes with either arm as he brings the 11-4 Chiefs to town with an eight-game winning streak. That puts them on the brink of the AFC's top seed in their run for a third straight Super Bowl berth.
Burrow, fresh off the fourth best passing game of all-time and performing the best high wire act this century with a long ball off a lethal array of gymnastic throws, has the Bengals a win away from their first AFC North title in six years in his second season.
Joey B Goode tries to get his name in lights on top of Sir Patrick and his Rolling Stones offense that has found traction again.
"He just seems to always make plays when a play needs to be made," Burrow said of Mahomes on Wednesday. "No matter what happens early in the game he just always comes through in the clutch to score points when they need to. He's been doing it for years. Just excited for the opportunity that we have."
Burrow could have been singing a riff about himself. Jordan Palmer, the former Bengals quarterback and current quarterback guru who prepped both for their respective draft, senses the 25-year-old Burrow is ready to share the stage with the 26-year-old Mahomes. Here's what he's waiting for Sunday.
"The last 3 min of the game," Palmer texted this week. "I think the Bengals win and Joe emerges as he what he really is. One of the best young players in this league and a guy who can win a championship."
Burrow wants what Mahomes has. That championship he earned two years ago and the playoff berth he locked up earlier this month with an intoxicating and very similar brew of speedy and savvy playmakers in the pass game.
Not the Pro Bowl, where Mahomes has gone four times. Not a number in what could be a stat circus between Mahomes and his career passer rating of 105.9 that is the best among active quarterbacks and Burrow's rating this season of 105 that is behind only Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.
"Obviously it would have been nice to make the Pro Bowl, but that's not why I play the game," said Burrow, a second alternate. "I play the game to win football games, make the playoffs and play for those guys in the locker room. So it is what it is. That's not why I play.
"This is a big opportunity, whether it's the Chiefs or whoever they throw out there against us. We've got an opportunity to go out there and win and win our division and make the playoffs. We're playing a really good team that's been in the Super Bowl the last two years, so it's a big opportunity in that sense. But it's a bigger opportunity for ourselves as far as the division is concerned."
Mahomes lost last year's Super Bowl to Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, the G.O.A.T. who won his first NFL title in 2001 before Burrow and Mahomes could add. Now he's in a generational game where the sum of the numbers says he and Burrow could be the next great AFC quarterback rivalry channeling Brady and Peyton Manning.
Mahomes comes into the game with 147 touchdown passes and on Sunday can tie Dan Marino for the fewest games to reach 150. Burrow comes into his 26th career start with 6,853 career passing yards for the fifth most all-time on a list headed by Mahomes' 8,007 and includes a pair of Hall-of-Famers in Marino and Kurt Warner.
After a rocky start to this season, Mahomes has the Chiefs back on their vintage fast track and the NFL is rightfully ballyhooing his last three games where he's got a 123.6 passer rating completing 73.3 percent of his passes on 9.2 yards per throw with eight touchdown passes and one interception.
But how about Burrow? In his last three games he's racked up a 129.9 passer rating completing 75.4 percent of his passes for 10.1 yards per throw with seven touchdowns and no picks.
"He can throw it no look, on the roll," said Bengals strong safety Vonn Bell of Mahomes. "They've got a strong arm, trust his arm and trust his guys to run underneath it. He'll try to flutter it out there, they got fast guys. They trust him. That's what you see."
No one is going to be playing these guys man-to-man and if they do it won't be for very long. According to the NFL, Burrow leads the NFL completing 70.9 percent of his passes against single-high safety defensive looks with a staggering 10.1 yards per throw, And Mahomes is right behind him at 70.6 and 8.3. Mahomes has 14 touchdowns and one interception against the look, while Burrow is 18-3. Their numbers drop against the two-high shell, where Mahomes has thrown 12 TDs and 11 picks and Burrow has eight touchdowns and 11 of his 14 interceptions.
Even another quarterbacks guru sounds like he's just going to sit back and enjoy it. Except Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan is working.
"The talent that Mahomes has is probably second to none. He and Rodgers are probably the two most talented throwers," said Callahan, who has also worked with Manning and Matthew Stafford, "But Joe's got an uncanny ability to place the ball accurately on the move anywhere on the field. It doesn't look the same as those guys, but it's definitely just as effective, and it's pretty cool to watch. I have not seen guys that have that natural sense of where people are moving to and then how to place the ball perfectly. He's one of the most accurate throwers I've ever seen."
Remember the angst over the lack of Burrow's rookie long ball last year? Don't look now, but he's leading the NFL in yards per pass with 8.66, slightly higher than Mahomes' career 8.1 that is the second highest among active quarterbacks. Burrow has 13 touchdown passes of at least 30 yards this season (no one has done that since 2000) and let him tell you why.
"Our offensive line is playing a lot better. They're giving me more time in the pocket," Burrow said. "We drafted this guy named Ja'Marr Chase that is really good down the field. And Tee Higgins has become one of the premier 50-50 ball catchers in the league. Then you have TB (Tyler Boyd) that's gotten a lot better at running after the catch and working the middle of the field. We're pretty explosive right now. We've just got to maintain this momentum that we have."
Momentum is something they simply didn't have last season when Burrow came out as the overall No. 1 pick. Because of COVID, spring workouts were wiped out and training camp was delayed. Until the second week of August, Burrow's throwing had been pretty much confined to throwing with his high school buddies in Joe Burrow Stadium.
"I think we've been pretty good all year. I would say that we understand the kind of throw that we need to make against different leverages and techniques that the corner plays," Burrow said. "We just have a lot more reps accumulated throughout the season to understand those situations and we know that we can throw it against just about any coverage."
And if you think Burrow's arm strength is better than last year, it is. For a variety of reasons. For one thing, he changed his footwork and made an offseason adjustment with his left foot pointing at the target as he drives the ball. For another, the massive amount of work he put into his ACL rehab made everything else stronger.
"It's definitely stronger than it was last year," Burrow said. "That's something that's going to continue to get better after every offseason that I have."
While Burrow was getting better in the offseason, so were the Bengals with the drafting of Chase, his tag-team partner at LSU who already has 1,153 yards and 10 touchdowns on 17.1 yards per catch. After watching Chase set the NFL record for most yards in his first seven games, the 6-4 sophomore Higgins has ripped down the most receiving yards in the league since week 12, making him and Chase the youngest 1,000-yard duo ever.
The outburst can conjure up Chiefs' like comparisons. The year before they won the Super Bowl in 2018, Mahomes burst on the scene with his mind-blowing 50 touchdowns, 12 of them to his third-year burner Tyreek Hill while Hill complied a Chase-like 17 yards per catch with a monstrous total of more than 1,400 yards.
And that was all supplemented by the brilliance of tight end Travis Kelce's 1,336 yards on 103 catches and those are the guys still doing it for Mahomes. It is Kelce, with 1,066 yards this year, who has the second most yards in the league behind Higgins in the last month, making the Bengals and Chiefs the only teams with 1,000-yard duos.
If Chase is Hill and Higgins is Kelce, Burrow can use big games from slot receiver Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon.
The Chiefs are getting a combined four yards per carry and 970 rushing yards as well 60 catches and four receiving touchdowns from Darrell Williams and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Meanwhile, Mixon is over 1,000 yards on 4.1 yards per carry with three receiving touchdowns. While the Chiefs are second in the league in percentage of receiving yards after the catch (the Bengals are 14th), Boyd's 792 yards give the Bengals the only three receivers on the same team with more than 700 yards.
The always serious Vonn Bell has been looking at one group of weapons on tape and another on the practice field. He breaks into a smile when asked about the similarities.
"I think if you compare those two we're the Monstars," Bell said. "We've got more height, a little speed, too. Height advantage, big jump-and-catch balls like you saw Tee do this weekend. He's got a grown man catch. Tyreek does a lot, too, but those guys aren't taller. They can run, but we've got a very explosive offense and they do, too.
"I don't know. Flip a coin on that one."
Enjoy the show.