In the first AFC title game in the post-Tom Brady era Sunday (3 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), two of the keepers of the flame in Cincinnati's Joe Burrow and Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes try to torch their way to the Super Bowl in what promises to be a bellwether championship game at Arrowhead Stadium.In th
As it often does on the verge of its biggest game since the opulent doors opened, the Bengals.com Media Roundtable is split as it takes the contrarian view and doesn't see the Chiefs winning their third straight AFC crown by acclamation in what it sees as a tight, one-score game that can go either way.
Start with a man who played in the Bengals' last conference championship game appearance, former safety Solomon Wilcots, now a ubiquitous Sirius radio host who thinks the Bengals have the confidence after beating the Chiefs just a month ago at Paul Brown Stadium. Also siding with the Bengals is James Rapien, who covers the club for Sports Illustrated and sees an even more explosive shootout than the Jan. 2 fireworks at PBS.
On the other side, The Cincinnati Enquirer's Charlie Goldsmith believes the more established Chiefs' experience carries the day while the former Bengals beat man at The Dayton Daily News from the '90s, Alex Marvez, opts for his heart over his head.
Let's go around The Table. As always, former Bengals, visitors and the alphabet first.
We pose a greater threat offensively against the Chiefs defense than even the Buffalo Bills were. The Bills don't have a running game. The Bengals have Joe Mixon. We can force a defender into the box. They're going to have to try and blitz us to get pressure. Which means they're going to get single coverage on Ja'Marr Chase. That converted a third-and-27 in the first game.
Offensively, all we have to do is hold up in protection. The last I checked, you can't get the quarterback if he's not holding the ball. If you hold it, you get sacked. That's why we gave up nine sacks. We're not getting the ball to our hot routes. Our protection is paramount. Everything else we can get done plenty. We can run it. We can throw it. Quick passing game so the quarterback doesn't get hit. That means our receivers have to win at the line of scrimmage immediately and get open.
THE EDGE: I believe we can win. We already beat them. It took 34 points. It's going to take 35-plus this time. BENGALS, 35-31
So many people think last week was the AFC title game. You just start to wonder a little bit with the Chiefs playoff experience, with four straight championship games, if that will help them prevent a letdown of sorts. I feel like Cincinnati, with the least cumulative playoff experience on the roster among the teams that made it, showed me that by beating Tennessee this is not a team that's complacent after breaking the 31-year drought.
I like that part. I don't know how Kansas City stops the passing attack except by pass rush. They're not good at cornerback. Even with safety Tyrann Mathieu back, Ja'Marr Chase lines up wide so much, he'll take out two defensive players and create opportunities for others if that's the way the Chiefs want to defend it. That's a serious issue for them.
The big concern for the Bengals as it is every week is the offensive line and the interior trying to handle Chris Jones and Jarran Reed. That's a tall task after giving up those nine sacks against Tennessee. All that said, I think the Bengals can pressure Mahomes, although I'm not sure they can do it from the interior. It's a Chiefs team that doesn't make its living on the run. Will Mahomes have the time to move around and do the things Patrick Mahomes does or can the Bengals affect him? I have my doubts about that.
THE EDGE: My heart tells me to go with the Bengals, but my head says Kansas City. I'm going to go with my head in what is going to be a fantastic game. There were lessons learned from Week 17. But if the Bengals win, it wouldn't shock me, either. This is a closer game than a lot of people think. CHIEFS, 30-27
It's not the most beautiful football game ever like last week's Bills-Chiefs game, but I think it will look a lot like it. You need a quarterback to get to this point. The Bengals have a chance in a game like this with Burrow. The problem is, as well as the Bengals offense has played all year, the Chiefs are on a higher level in terms of efficiency and explosiveness. Particularly in the postseason. As good as Burrow and Ja'Marr are, the three Hall-of-Famers the Chiefs have in Mahomes, Hill and Kelce are the difference-makers for an elite offense at this stage of the season. The Bengals are still in the adding stage to their roster, but the Chiefs have the talent straight up.
THE EDGE: Mahomes gets off one or two 40-yard throws. Which he was on the verge of doing in the first matchup. He's doing it even better now. Mahomes and Tyreek Hill are the difference. CHIEFS, 31-24
The Bengals are off to Kansas City for the AFC Championship against the Kansas City Chiefs. Presented by On Location, check out some of the top shots from the trip.
It's going to be a lot of offense. It's going to be like the Bengals in the second half and the Chiefs in the first half of the first game in Cincinnati. One factor that is being talked about is the noise. I think they're going to do a good job preparing for that, especially after they handled it in Tennessee. I expect a lot of points and the stars on both teams showing up. It's going to be back and forth.
I think the Bengals can outlast Mahomes. The Chiefs gave up 201 yards to Bills wide receiver Gabriel Davis. Would he be the Bengals fourth wide receiver? That's just the reality of this. The Bengals have Ja'Marr Chase and right now he's better than the Chiefs best wide receiver, Tyreek Hill. They also have Tee Higgins, who is capable of going off if you need him to. Tyler Boyd is Mr. Reliable. Tight end C.J. Uzomah down the seam. Joe Mixon is the best running back between the two teams.
Joe Burrow has been in these big games. Going into Tuscaloosa and beating Alabama. Beating Clemson when Trevor Lawrence had never lost. Last week he was able to stand in there and keep his composure.
THE EDGE: Burrow has enough magic left and they have just enough of everything else in a wild shootout. BENGALS, 41-38
THE BOTTOM LINE
What a difference a month makes.
Ever since the Bengals beat the Chiefs back on Jan. 2 at The Paul in one of their biggest wins ever, they've won two more for their best postseason run in 33 years. And the Chiefs have bounced back from that stunning, chaotic last two minutes on the goal line to rip off 42 points each in their two playoff games.
You would think this might be a changing-of-the-guard game. The Chiefs are here for the fourth straight year with their Super Bowl MVP quarterback and their NFL-high of 338 playoff games on their roster. The Bengals are here, probably a year or two early, with a second-year quarterback heading up a roster of just 141 playoff games.
But neither of these teams is going anywhere after Sunday. Instead of a changing of the guard it's more like a parade. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, just 26, leads a roster that is actually younger than the Bengals (25 years, 240 days to 26 years, 153 days) while the Bengals have shown they have plenty of playoff grit to match that young talent with two wins posted in the final seconds.
Which is a good place to start. Although the Bengals are young, they're well-rounded. They can win a couple of different ways. Since Burrow lit up the Chiefs for four touchdown passes, he's thrown just two in the playoffs while the Bengals have relied as much on their defense as his arm. The Bengals have scored just three touchdowns in the playoffs while riding stingy red-zone defense and the radar kicking of rookie Evan McPherson and his eight-for-eight in the postseason.
The Chiefs have put a pair of 42-point games up in the postseason, but the Bengals can play that game, too. The week before they beat the Chiefs, they beat the Ravens, 41-21.
And, in the end, that's what they'll have to do if they want to reach the Super Bowl. That's a no-brainer. The Chiefs have not scored fewer than 28 points in their last seven games. Since Nov. 1, when the Bengals have been the only team to beat them, KC has scored fewer than 20 points twice.
But if the Chiefs decide to play it like Tennessee and sell out to pressure the quarterback in order to take advantage of a reeling offensive line, the Bengals best answer may not be in the pass game. It may be reverting to something like but not exactly like the 15-10 win in Denver.
KC defensive tackle Chris Jones' matchup with Bengals right guard Hakeem Adeniji has Bengaldom on the edge with his 30 pressures since KC moved him inside in early November. But the Chiefs defense is ranked 21st against the run and giving up 4.8 yards per carry. Bengals running back Joe Mixon hasn't carried 20 times or for more than 65 in his last seven games. But the last time he did, he had a career-high 165 yards on Nov. 28 in the win over Pittsburgh.
That's the kind of rushing effort that solves a batch of problems. It slows down the pass rush and it keeps the ball away from Mahomes. It's also the kind of running numbers that win postseason games and puts you on magazine covers. Maybe the best piece of research material from Jan. 2 is the Bengals won because they kept the ball for the last 6:01 of the game. It's the kind of stage where Mixon could enter as one of Burrow's weapons and leave as a household name.
And yet. And yet. Burrow is the best passer in the league under pressure. In Tennessee, he hit all ten of his passes under the gun. So if KC blitzes (and they are top ten in the league), they have to get there.
The Bengals defensive story is pretty basic. Wilcots thinks they had a good plan against Mahomes, much like what defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo did to Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Make him throw from a well. Don't all-out rush. Cage him. Don't allow him to run by the sack.
In the first half against KC, the Bengals allowed five passes of at least 23 yards In the second half, the two biggest plays were a 19-yard run by running back Darrell Williams and Mahomes' 17-yard scramble. They'll try to replicate what they did against Tyreek Hill (40 yards) and Travis Kelce (25), but they can still win if only one of them goes off. But they have to be physical with both and just can't let them fly off the line.
What they have to avoid is what Hill did last week against the Bills on a 64-yard catch-and-run or Kelce's 25-yard catch down the seam in the last 13 seconds. The idea is to do what they've been doing the last two games. No big plays (they haven't allowed 20 points in the playoffs). Don't drop interceptions (they have four). Be nasty in the red zone (where they've allowed two TDs in eight trips).
The red zone success we're seeing now began on Mahomes' last snap against the Bengals, a third-and-five from the 16, where free safety Jessie Bates III's zero blitz forced a field goal.
It would be nice if they could print out that Jan. 2 stat sheet. But Mahomes won't give access. Not at Arrowhead. Not in the playoffs.
They'll have to do some editing. They'll probably take the four sacks the Chiefs got that day. But they'll need to work on Mixon's stat line that day: 12 carries, 46 yards. The thing is, they've got it in the archives if they need to pull out that kind of game.