AFC Championship: Can the Bengals Do the Unthinkable and Beat the Chiefs a Second Time?
NFL

AFC Championship: Can the Bengals Do the Unthinkable and Beat the Chiefs a Second Time?

Ever since Andy Reid handed Patrick Mahomes the keys to the Chiefs’ offense four years ago, Kansas City has been virtually unstoppable in the AFC playoffs.

As impressive as it is that they’re hosting a fourth straight AFC title game, Mahomes and company have somehow looked even stronger during this year’s playoff run, opening with back-to-back 40-point showings.

And yet, despite looking utterly dominant offensively with a single blemish on their record since the calendar flipped to November, the Chiefs will be visited Sunday by the lone team to defeat them in the last three months.

“We’ll see you in the playoffs,” Mahomes told Bengals star rookie Ja’Marr Chase after Cincinnati handed the visiting Chiefs a 34-31 loss in Week 17 (with the Bengals winning the same way they prevailed last week – on an Evan McPherson field goal as time expired).

Although they beat the Chiefs a mere four weeks ago – again, the only team to defeat Kansas City in the last 98 days – Chase, Joe Burrow and the Bengals aren’t given much of a chance in the rematch at Arrowhead Stadium with Kansas City favored by seven points.

The Chiefs were favored by at least seven points eight times this past regular season – only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12) and Buffalo Bills (10) had more such games – and Kansas City won its final seven contests when it was favored by seven or more after losing to the Los Angles Chargers in Week 3.

Teams favored by seven or more points won just over 80% of the time this past regular season, which is right in line with the winning percentage for teams favored by at least seven points in conference championship games since 1976.

Record of Teams Favored by 7+ Points

SpanGamesW-L RecordWin Percentage
2021 Regular Season10283-19.814
Playoff Games (Since 1976)198152-46.768
Conference Title Games (Since 1976)3730-7.811

Now as far as situations like this Chiefs-Bengals matchup go, there have been 37 playoff games in the last 45 seasons in which a team was favored by seven or more points against a team it lost to in the regular season. Those favored teams are winning three-quarters of the time in all playoff games and two-thirds of the time in conference championship game rematches.

Teams Favored By 7+ Points in Playoffs After Losing to Opp. in Regular Season

SpanGamesW-L RecordWin Percentage
All Playoff Games Since 19763728-9.757
Conference Title Games Since 197696-3.667

This will be the third time in the past four playoffs the Chiefs are favored by at least seven points against a team they lost to in the regular season, and they won the two prior instances – beating the Houston Texans 51-31 in their epic comeback in a 2019 division game and defeating the Tennessee Titans 35-24 in the conference championship game a week later en route to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in a half-century.

While the Chiefs are looking to become the league’s next dynasty, the Bengals are in unfamiliar territory – in the conference title game for the first time since the 1988 season.

After snapping an eight-game losing streak in the playoffs with a 26-19 victory over the Raiders in the wild-card round, Cincinnati advanced to the conference championship game with last Saturday’s 19-16 victory over the top-seeded Titans.

The Chiefs were in the driver’s seat for that top seed until their eight-game winning streak was snapped with that loss at Cincinnati. The Bengals clinched their first AFC North crown since 2015 with that victory and are now one win away from their first trip to the title game since losing to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII.

So Why Again Are the Chiefs Such a Heavy Favorite?

Oh, right. They’re good on offense. Like really good.

Since Mahomes has been bestowed the label of QB1 in KC, the Chiefs have scored 31, 31, 51, 35, 22, 38, 42 and 42 points in eight playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl. They’ve gone 7-1 in those contests, the only defeat a 37-31 overtime setback to the New England Patriots in the 2018 AFC conference title game.

Those eight games have also all been played at Arrowhead. That’s right, the only playoffs games Mahomes has played away from Kansas City are a pair of Super Bowls.

In these eight AFC playoff games, the Chiefs are scoring points on 61.5% of their 78 drives – excluding kneel-down possessions to end the first half and the game – and have recorded touchdowns nearly half the time – 48.7% (38 TDs). For comparisons sake, during the 2021 regular season, the Chiefs led the league in scoring efficiency, finishing 48.2% of their drives with points. They finished with touchdowns 31.5% of the time – second only to the Los Angeles Rams at 32.0%.

Burrow and the Bengals also boast a high-powered offense, but they’ve been nowhere near as efficient as the Chiefs. Excluding the kneel-down to end their wild-card win over the Raiders, the Bengals have had 21 possessions in the playoffs. Only three have ended with touchdowns. Eight have ended with field goals, and granted they only needed three points on their final possession to beat the Titans last weekend, but settling for three points is not going to cut it playing against the Chiefs.

Maybe you heard about Kansas City’s offensive exploits down the stretch in its incredible 42-36 win over the Buffalo Bills in last weekend’s division game? If not, we’ll quickly revisit.

The Chiefs amassed 119 total yards of offense on eight plays in their two drives in the final two minutes – highlighted by a short pass to Tyreek Hill that the speedster took 64 yards to motor past the Buffalo defense for a touchdown to put Kansas City ahead with 62 seconds remaining. Then after giving up a go-ahead score and getting the ball back with 13 seconds left and down by three, Mahomes hit Travis Kelce for a 25-yard gain in the waning seconds to set up Harrison Butker’s 49-yard field goal on the final play of regulation.

It was a foregone conclusion that whatever team won the overtime coin toss would win the game given the way the offenses were moving the ball, and the Chiefs delivered. Moving 75 yards on just seven plays, Mahomes’ eight-yard strike to Kelce in the back corner of the end zone sent Kansas City back to the AFC title game.

On those final three drives, the Chiefs piled up 194 yards on 16 snaps – an average of 12.1 yards per play.

Mahomes finished the game completing 75% of his 44 passes for 378 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 123.1 passer rating. A stupendous stat line, but pretty much right in line with what we’ve come to expect from Mahomes in the playoffs at Arrowhead, where he’s averaging 318.8 passing yards with 23 touchdowns to just one interception for a 120.5 passer rating.

Mahomes’ game-winning touchdown pass to Kelce last week was the 10th time the two connected for a TD in the playoffs – the second most between a quarterback and tight end in the postseason behind Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Kelce is also just three catches away from passing Gronk’s record for the most playoff receptions by a tight end of 98. The Mahomes-to-Kelce duo has been deadly in the playoffs but it’s hardly the only connection the Bengals have to worry about.

Mahomes to Kelce and Hill

Kelce’s burn percentage of 76.9 ranked second in the league among the 89 players with at least 45 receptions during the regular season, while Hill ranked fifth at 72.8. Hill’s 115 burns were tied with the Bills’ Stefon Diggs for second in the NFL while Kelce clocked in at No. 7 with 103.

The duo of Kelce and Hill are enough to give any opposing defenses fits but the sudden emergence of Jerick McKinnon could present bigger problems for the Bengals.

McKinnon appeared on just five offensive plays in the Week 17 game at Cincinnati and didn’t touch the ball. With injuries to Clyde Edward-Helaire and Darrel Williams, McKinnon became the next man up in the Kansas City backfield and made his first start of the season in the playoffs.

In the 42-21 wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, McKinnon ran 12 times for 61 yards and caught six passes for 81 yards with a touchdown – becoming just the fifth player in the last 30 seasons to have 60+ rushing yards and 80+ receiving yards in a playoff game. Against the Bills, he caught another five passes for 54 yards and also ran for 24.

In the playoffs, McKinnon has caught three passes on swing routes for 28 yards and three passes in the flat that he’s turned around for 30 yards, but the underneath screen has been where he’s been the most dangerous.

Jerick McKinnon on screen passes during the playoffs

The NFL average for yards per reception on underneath screens in the playoffs is 8.7 and the league averages 7.79 burn yards per target. Overall in the postseason, McKinnon has recorded a burn percentage of 84.6 – the fourth highest among those that have been targeted at least eight times.

Behind the success of McKinnon, the Chiefs are calling screen passes with more frequency in the playoffs. They ran screens 9.7% of the time in the regular season but are now running them on 15.2% of offensive plays.

The Benglas, however, have excelled at shutting down opposing screen passes. In defending 52 screen passes in the 2021 season and playoffs, Cincinnati has allowed an average of just 3.75 yards per play – nearly two yards below the NFL average of 5.58.

The Chiefs only ran two screens in their Week 17 matchup, finding most of their success when Mahomes dropped back. Mahomes dropped back 10 times and the Chiefs averaged 13.60 yards on those plays – 5.50 higher than their season average of 8.10 on drop backs. The NFL regular season average on drop backs was 7.05 yards per play and the Bengals allowed an average of 6.85.

The Bengals played a lot of zone and against the Chiefs earlier this month, which makes sense given the exploits of Hill and Kelce, and they did a good job of limiting their production. Hill caught six passes for 40 yards, while Kelce was held to five catches and 25 yards, though he did get open once for a touchdown.

Cincinnati’s Chidobe Awuzie will be lining up against Hill, and he recorded an adjusted open-allowed percentage of 22.22 in nine man coverage situations in the first matchup. His adjusted open-allowed percentage in man coverage this season sits at 28.13, slightly better than the league average for cornerbacks of 30.89.

Mahomes, meanwhile, did a good job of spreading the ball around back in Week 17, with 10 Chiefs catching passes – tied for their most in a game this season. Backup tight end Blake Bell had a season-high three receptions for 35 yards, Mecole Hardman gained 53 yards on a corner route and Byron Pringle had a 27-yard gain on a crossing route.

Mahomes completed 26-of-35 passes for 259 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 113.9 QB rating.

In the playoffs, opposing QBs have dropped back to throw 48 times against the Bengals, and Cincinnati is surrendering an average of just 5.29 yards on those plays. The Bengals, however, have not faced a quarterback as talented as Mahomes, going up against Derek Carr and Ryan Tannehill in the first two rounds.

It seems inevitable that the Chiefs are going to score points come Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead. They’ve done it time and again, year after year and little suggests they’re going to slow down as they look to become just the fourth team to make the Super Bowl in at least three straight seasons, joining the Bills from 1990-93, the New England Patriots from 2016-18 and the Miami Dolphins from 1971-73.

So, Can the Bengals Pull off the Upset?

It would be crazy to say a Bengals team that just beat the Chiefs 28 days ago couldn’t do it again.

Though any chance Cincinnati has at knocking off Kansas City is pretty much depending on Burrow and Chase replicating the performance they had against the Chiefs in Week 17.

Burrow posted a career-best 148.0 passer rating, throwing for 446 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. He had five throws go for at least 25 yards – including a key 30-yarder to Chase on a third-and-27 with just over three minutes remaining to get the ball down to the 11-yard line to set up McPherson’s game-winning field goal.

Chase wound up with 266 receiving yards – a single-game rookie record – with 150 of those yards coming after the catch. In all, he finished with 11 receptions – three resulting in touchdowns – while registering eight burns with an average of 22.17 burn yards per target.

Ja'Marr Chase against the Chiefs

Chase has picked up in the playoffs right where he left off after a sensational regular season in which he amassed 1,455 receiving yards – the most for a first-year player in the Super Bowl-era – notched a league-high eight TD receptions of 20+ yards and averaged 14.42 burn yards per target – second in the NFL among the 89 players with at least 45 receptions.

After a 116-yard performance against the Raiders in the wild-card round, Chase had 109 receiving yards against the Titans to become the first rookie in NFL history with multiple 100-yard receiving games in the postseason. One more 100-yard receiving game and he’ll join Larry Fitzgerald as the only players with at least 100 receiving yards in each of their first three career playoff games.

Charvarius Ward has the daunting task of trying to contain Chase – something he was unable to do in the first matchup.

Ward has enjoyed a solid season, posting an adjusted open-allowed percentage in man coverage of 21.66 – the league average for cornerbacks is 30.89 – and a burn-allowed percentage of 43.4 – 12th best in the NFL among the 99 corners targeted at least 40 times.

In Week 17, however, Ward was burned five times for 121 yards and had an open-allowed percentage of 33.33 in 15 one-on-ones. He was also in coverage on Chase on that key third-and-27 late in the fourth quarter.

Much of Kansas City’s ability to curb Cincinnati’s passing attack is riding on the health of safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Rashad Fenton.

Mathieu returned to practice Thursday after being in the league’s concussion protocol and is hopeful of suiting up Sunday, but if he’s unable to go that would leave a massive hole in the Chiefs secondary. The three-time Pro Bowler appeared in just seven defensive plays before being knocked out last week and after he left, Kansas City had little hope of stopping Josh Allen. Mathieu was sorely missed as Allen carved up the Chiefs defense, throwing for 329 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.

Widely recognized as one of the most impactful safeties in the NFL, Mathieu has an adjusted open-allowed percentage in man coverage of 20.59. The NFL average for safeties is 29.00%. While it would be impossible to replace Mathieu’s aptitude, backup Daniel Sorensen is a significant downgrade, recording an adjusted open-allowed percentage in man coverage of 43.18.

The Chiefs look like they’ll at least have Fenton back in the fold after he missed the first two games of the playoffs with an injured back. He has been practicing this week after not practicing at all in the week before the Bills game.

Fenton’s return would be huge as he’ll have the responsibility of impeding the production of Tee Higgins so the rest of the Kansas City defense can focus on the whereabouts of Chase. Fenton has an adjusted open-allowed percentage in man coverage of 24.51 and had an adjusted open-allowed percentage of 21.43 in 14 one-on-ones in Week 17.

Higgins, whose average of 10.8 yards at the catch is the seventh highest in the league (min. 45 receptions), had three receptions for 62 yards in the first meeting and is coming off a seven-catch, 96-yard performance against the Titans.

Getting the ball to Chase and Higgins all sounds well and good, but none of that will matter if Burrow doesn’t have time to throw.

Burrow was sacked a whopping nine times last weekend – tied for the most in a playoff game – but still managed to complete 28-of-37 passes (75.7%) for 348 yards. That’s been the story all the season for Burrow, who has still managed to find success while having defenders in his face.

Burrow, Passing Under Duress – Regular Season & Playoffs

CategoryUnder PressureRankvs. BlitzRank
Completion Percentage60.8%5th75.0%2nd
Well-Thrown Percentage81.1%1st82.8%1st
Average Air Yards11.683rd10.472nd
Catchability Percentage71.3%8th83.6%1st
(Min. 100 Pass Attempts)

In Week 17, the Chiefs defense sacked Burrow four times while knocking him down on nine occasions, but Burrow still managed to complete 5-of-6 passes while being blitzed with an average of 15.33 air yards.

Chris Jones was regularly in Cincinnati’s backfield, sacking Burrow twice while also registering three QB hits and 4 ½ QB hurries. The second-team All-Pro won 10 of his 15 one-on-one matchups while fellow pass-rusher Melvin Ingram III won four of his 12 one-on-ones.

While the left side of the Bengals offensive line has been relatively steady behind tackle Jonah Williams and guard Quinton Spain, the two were routinely beaten by the Chiefs earlier this month. Williams allowed a sack and won just 58.82% of his one-one-one matchups – a far cry from his season rate of 76.74% – while Spain won only four of his seven one-on-ones. Spain won 77.63% of his one-on-ones this season.

The league average for guards in one-on-one matchups in pass protection is 76.45% and tackles average out at 78.41%, so Spain and Williams are right around the league average.

The same cannot be said for the right side of the offensive line, where Jones will spend much of the time lining up.

Right guard Hakeem Andeniji, who was responsible for three sacks last week, won 67.47% of his one-on-one matchups this season, while Prince graded out at 61.45%. In Week 17, Andeniji won eight of his 12 one-on-one matchups while Prince won 64.71% of his 17 one-on-ones.

The Bengals have all but abandoned the running game – and that’s understandable given the way they’re able to move the ball through the air – but it might be worth revisiting. In its last five games, Cincinnati is passing on 67.3% of its offensive plays – the highest rate in the NFL since Week 16. This came after the Bengals passed 56.1% of the time through the season’s first 15 weeks – the 11th-lowest rate in the league.

Joe Mixon was third in the league in rushing in the regular season at 1,205 yards and fourth in rushing TDs with 13, and giving him the ball would seem to make some sense in a matchup with a Chiefs defense that allowed an average of 4.77 yards per rush in the regular season – the league’s second-worst mark. Kansas City also finished last in EVE against the run, allowing an average of 0.663 rushing yards over expected.

The Bengals, though, only had 13 designed runs for Mixon and fellow back Samaje Perine in the Week 17 meeting, with the former rushing 12 times for 46 yards.

Handing the ball off also seems to make sense to prevent Burrow from taking such a beating behind his shaky O-line. Keeping the ball on the ground not only keeps Burrow upright, but it also chews up the clock and helps keep the ball out of Mahomes’ hands.

While the Bengals seem to have some matchups working in their favor – aside from the offensive line, though that doesn’t seem to bother Burrow much anyway – the biggest key for pulling the upset and punching a ticket to the Super Bowl is cashing in on their scoring opportunities.

Burrow and company haven’t had much trouble moving the ball down field, but they’ve scored touchdowns on just three of their seven trips inside the red zone in the playoffs – a rate of 42.9%. That would’ve been dead last in the NFL for the 2021 regular season, as the Giants had the league’s worst red zone TD efficiency rate at 44.7%.


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Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads and Greg Gifford contributed. Design by Matt Sisneros.