Packed Paul Brown Stadium's snap-crackle-and-pop is going to be electrified Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) with the Bengals' first chance to clinch a division at home in a dozen years. Only adding to the megawatts is the red-hot Chiefs stalking the AFC's top seed with an eight-game winning streak in Super Bowl and NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes' first PBS appearance in a career he has a 26-1 record during November, December and January.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable is calling for Mahomes and record setting Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow to please the crowd with their exploits in a back-and-forth game, but in the end believes things stay Pat in the AFC.
Steve Wyche, the NFL Network's ubiquitous reporter and anchor, thinks the Chiefs defense carries a day of offense. And The Kansas City Star's "Sudden," Sam McDowell believes the Chiefs' pass rush is going to throw a high hard one past Burrow's pass protection.
The Cincinnati contingent of Laurel Pfahler of The Dayton Daily News and James Rapien of Sports Illustrated predicts a tight high-scoring game that puts the Bengals in the contention conversation but not over the top.
Let's go around The Table. As always, ladies, visitors and the alphabet first:
All the talk seems to be centered on both offenses, but the Chiefs defense is better than we expected this year with the all the turnovers they've been generating lately. Still, I think the fans are going to be entertained with a high-scoring game the offenses on both sides put on a show.
The Bengals are playing well coming off the big game against Baltimore, but the Chiefs have done that for the last couple of months and are coming in hot with eight straight wins. Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones is going to be a problem and he gives the Bengals some issues up front.
THE EDGE: Joe Burrow can overcome those things, but I'm just hesitant. They haven't been able to get that third straight victory all year and the Chiefs have. CHIEFS, 38-31
This is the ultimate challenge for the Bengals, right? Are they that team? Can they show the maturity to step up and play? I'm not so worried about the Bengals offense, even though they're going to go be challenged up front and the Chiefs secondary is playing really well. As the game goes along. Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is going to dial stuff up, so Joe Burrow is really going to have to be really in tune with the kind of tendencies that the Chiefs show as the game unfolds.
But the key is the Bengals defense keeping Kansas City from scoring points early. We know the Chiefs are a team that plays much better with a lead. Whether the Bengals can get them in a shootout or whether it's the kind of game that just gets stuck in the mud, if the Bengals can drag them to that type of game and dictate terms a little bit , they've got a really, really good shot here. They can just not turn the ball over. That is key here. They cannot have a fumble or an interception here.
THE EDGE: The Chiefs defense right now is making it confusing and really tough on offenses right now. CIHIEFS, 28-24
What's really interesting about this game is the Chiefs turned it around in mid-season and have won eight straight and you've got a Bengals team that turned it around even before the season began. This is a game for Cincinnati to prove that what they've done all season is for real. But the Chiefs have a lot to play for, as well, trying to get the No. 1 seed. I think Patrick Mahomes has been on quite a tear recently, considering he didn't have his two top receivers last week. I think he found something as far as the offense going back into his hands rather than worrying about who he's going to throw the ball to. I think that bodes well for their future.
The Bengals offensive line has been what has struggled this year. The Chiefs pass rush has been the biggest reason, I think, for their mid-season turnaround. It's a matchup I like for the Chiefs, as long as they can cover on the back end. Steve Spagnuolo said it this week. There's not a better trio of receivers than Cincinnati's. That's going to be the key matchup.
THE EDGE: Mahomes and his offense and the defense are on a roll. CHIEFS, 27-23
It would be the biggest win of the Zac Taylor Era and not just because of the playoffs. These two teams could face off for a number of years against each other in the AFC and potentially in the playoffs. Getting your first lick in for that would be ideal for the Bengals.
Much easier said than done when it's Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and company. And, oh, by the way, this Chiefs defense is playing really well, forcing turnovers. They're complete. I think they have playmakers on every level of their defense, which can't be said about most defenses in the NFL. It's a really, really tough game, but a good measuring stick for the Bengals.
They are going to have to have an outstanding start. The good news is they started fast last week after a bunch of slow starts. That needs to be the case again for them to have a shot. I do think the Bengals are good enough to keep it close. I just think they're a little away from the Chiefs, the best team in the conference in my opinion.
THE EDGE: This reminds me of the 2005 season. Nov. 20, 2005. The Bengals hosted the Colts. It was a fun game. A real track meet. The Colts won a one-possession game, 45-37, but it never really felt like the Bengals were going to get over the hump. I have a fear that this is going to play out the same way where the Bengals have enough offensive firepower to hang in and hang in it. But the way the Chiefs are playing, I'm going to take them in a shootout. CHIEFS, 41-34
THE BOTTOM LINE
The storyline is all set, right?
Burrow coming off the fourth most prolific passing game of all time, against Mahomes' lethal army of arm slots and yards-after-catch weapons that have made it to the last two Super Bowls.
Are the Bengals ready to beat the Chiefs at their own explosive game?
But hold on, Elias breath.
The Bengals are trying to develop a K.C.-style on offense. Relentless and suffocating with big plays by a deep band of playmakers unleashed by a gifted and elusive triggerman. And yet the Chiefs are on the verge of nailing down the AFC's top seed with a defense that turns it over and an offense that doesn't.
If the Bengals clinch the AFC North Sunday, the irony is it may not be in an out-of-the-world shootout as a harbinger of the wide-open Zooming 2020s.
That would come out of nowhere considering what the Chiefs defense is doing. It is ranked high only where it counts: Scoring (fifth), turnovers (ninth at plus-two) and winning (they've allowed more than 17 points just once in the eight-game winning streak).
The Bengals offensive line has quietly strung together competent performances in the last month and they'll need one against Kansas City. If they deliver four yards-per-rush, it goes a long way in getting the Bengals a win.
The Chiefs' big, physical defensive line (top pass rushers Frank Clark and Chris Jones from inside-and-out as well as 310-poundish Jarran Reed and Derrick Nnadi in the middle) is just the kind of group that has given the Bengals challenges this season in the run game, starting in Chicago and running through the losses to the Jets, Browns and 49ers in which they averaged 3.2 yards per run.
The Bengals need running back Joe Mixon to keep respected and grizzled defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo off their backs. He likes to bring it. Of the Bengals' opponents, only the Ravens have a bigger blitz percentage (28.7 percent), allowing the Chiefs to rack up the second biggest percentage of quarterback knockdowns in the NFL, according to Pro Football Reference.
But Spagnuolo doesn't have to always blitz to get pressure. Jones is one of the league's elite inside rushers (he has the same number of QB hits as Bengals tackle Larry Ogunjobi and shares a consecutive sack mark with Bengals edge Trey Hendrickson) and Clark is in double digits on the outside, too. The pressure has fueled their signature turnovers. They've forced 21 in the winning streak.
(What's interesting here is that Hendrickson and left edge Sam Hubbard each have more hits on the quarterback than Clark, which tells you the Bengals can bring pressure, too. And they'll need to get it on Mahomes. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo made that clear during the week when he said pressuring Mahomes is "the equalizer.")
The Bengals have more 40-yard passes (17-9) and 20- yard passes (56-52) than the Chiefs, but no one has the yards after the catch than Kansas City has. The Chiefs lead the league, according to PFR. That's why Bengals strong safety Vonn Bell said last week that tackling is at a premium Sunday. The Chiefs have built their offense on terrifying speed that gets them down field on missed tackles or Mahomes' flick-of-the-wrist deep ball and the Bengals, allowing the 11th most yards after catch, know they can't let it get out of hand.
Sometimes it seems like the Bengals and Chiefs stats should be flipped. Burrow leads the NFL in yards per throw and Mahomes is tenth. All three Bengals wide receivers (Ja'Marr Chase at 17.1, Tee Higgins at 14.5 and Tyler Boyd at 12.6) have more yards per catch than the 11.5 of the elite burner Tyreek Hill and the 10.7 of 4.33-40 yard dash man Mecole Hardman.
But they can go off at any moment and have racked up nearly 2,500 yards after the catch. Chidobe Awuzie has used his own speed to become the Bengals top cornerback and he and Anarumo are talking about how they can't let the Chiefs receivers run by them. Awuzie figures the guy that could challenge him to be the fastest Bengal is fellow cornerback Trae Waynes. They could use Waynes' speed off the bench Sunday, but he's on the COVID list.
As good as the Chiefs secondary and linebackers are (and they can cover man-to-man), they allow the fourth most yards after catch. Offensively, the Bengals have put up the sixth most yards after catch, with tight end Travis Kelce's 540 YAC getting the edge on Chase's 469 while Hill (429) and Hardman (385) get in slightly over Boyd's 379.
So, can the Bengals beat the Chiefs at their own game?
Who knows? In the NFL this season, the week's story line and Monday's head line almost never match.