Bengals (12-4, 2-0) at Chiefs (14-3, 1-0), Sunday, Jan. 29 at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium (natural grass), 6:30 p.m. ET, TV: CBS, Paramount+ WKRC-TV Ch. 12, WHIO-TV Ch. 7 (Dayton), (Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Evan Washburn, Tracy Wolfson, Jay Feely, Gene Steratore), Radio: 700 WLW, WEBN-FM (102.7 FM), ESPN1530, (Dan Hoard, Dave Lapham)
CINCINNATI — The Bengals have just one more hurdle to clear to return to the biggest game in American sports.
But it figures to be the steepest hurdle in the most unwelcoming environment as frigid temperatures and another hostile crowd awaits them Sunday evening at Arrowhead Stadium when they battle Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs in a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship. The forecast calls for clear skies and temperatures around 20 with a wind chill in the single digits for the 6:30 p.m. ET kickoff.
This weekend’s game will mark the fourth meeting in 13 months between the two non-division opponents. Their three 2022 calendar-year games include two ’21 season contests played last January — a 34-31 Week 17 win at Cincinnati, and a 27-24 OT victory in the AFC Championship at Kansas City. Germaine Pratt forced and recovered a Kelce fumble in the fourth quarter with the Chiefs leading 24-20 that sparked a Bengals comeback in a 27-24 Week 13 win at Cincinnati on Dec. 4.
One thing is for sure, the Bengals almost certainly won’t be able to repeat last year’s miraculous comeback when they wiped out a 21-3 first half hole and a 21-10 halftime deficit.
“Ready to go. Had a great week of practice,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. “All of our stuff is dialed up and ready to go. We’re excited where we’re at.”
Cincinnati is making its fourth AFC Championship appearance, winning its previous three at the end of the 1981, 1988 and 2021 seasons. The Bengals are the only team unbeaten in AFC Championship appearances.
They earned their spot in the NFL’s final four by way of a dominant 27-10 road win over the No. 2-seeded Buffalo Bills in a snowy AFC Divisional Playoff last Sunday. Cincinnati battled through the conditions to record 412 net yards of offense, including 172 rushing, while defensively it held the high-scoring Bills to season lows in points (10) and rushing yards (63).
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 27, 2023
“It was one of the best games of the year,” Burrow said after the game. “Rushing, pass blocking — it might be our most complete game of the season as a team.”
Burrow completed 23 of 36 passes for 242 yards and two TDs, while committing zero turnovers. His best work was done early on, however, as on the opening two offensive drives he went nine for nine for 105 yards and a pair of passing scores to give the Bengals a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
What do you think you did best against Buffalo and what did the team do best against Buffalo?
“We jumped out on them early. When you that you kind of play the rest of the game a little differently, especially when your defense is playing so well,” Burrow said. “I thought the whole game we took what their defense gave us. We kept the chains moving. We had 30 first downs. When you do that, you jump out early, you control the clock and run the ball the way that we did, you’re going to win a lot of games. Obviously there are going to be some games you have to force it a little more and push the ball down the field. We jumped on them. The defense is playing great, try to run the ball, take check-downs and get first downs and that’s what we did.
Cincinnati was given the first possession of the game and marched 79 yards in six plays, capped by a 28-yard pass to Ja’Marr Chase, who found the end zone for his ninth TD in his last nine games played.
Following a quick three-and-out forced by the Bengals’ defense, Burrow went right back to work, steering a five-play, 72-yard drive that finished with a 15-yard TD pass to tight end Hayden Hurst.
“Our guys believe. They walk on the field ready to attack,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “We were taking the ball whether we won the coin toss or not. Those guys want to walk on the field and start attacking other teams, and that’s what happened.”
The offense was able to sustain drives throughout the afternoon, totaling a Bengals postseason record 30 first downs to slowly drown out the raucous Buffalo home crowd. Perhaps the most impressive performance on that side of the ball came from the offensive line, which was missing three starters entering the game but limited the Bills to just one sack and consistently provided Burrow with time in the pocket.
“To rush for over 170 yards in this environment, to handle the noise the way they did, to protect Joe (Burrow) the way that they did — I thought our offensive line was outstanding,” Taylor said.
The run game will again be critical Sunday in Kansas City if they are to take the crowd out of the game and not let them reach full throat and disrupt the cadence of the offensive line, including left tackle Jackson Carman, right guard Max Scharping and right tackle Hakeem Adeniji. Those three offensive linemen were a big reason the Bengals had such success early in Buffalo.
Defensively, the Bengals shut down a Bills side that ranked in the top 10 in scoring, total offense, passing and rushing during the regular season. Coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit forced four punts, and a field goal that cut Buffalo’s deficit to 17-10 midway through the third quarter proved to be its final points of the day. The 10 points given up tied for the second-fewest yielded in a postseason game in Bengals history.
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 27, 2023
The Bengals answered Buffalo’s third-quarter field goal with a methodical 12-play, 75-yard drive which featured seven runs and five passes. Joe Mixon punctuated the drive with a one-yard TD that regained Cincinnati’s two-score advantage.
Buffalo put together two extended drives in the fourth quarter, desperately trying to close the gap as time wound down. The Bills came up empty on both possessions, though, beginning with a fourth-down from the Cincinnati 16-yard line that saw Josh Allen’s pass to the end zone broken up by Eli Apple.
Allen then drove Buffalo inside Bengals territory on a last-gasp possession with under two minutes left, but the game was put to bed when rookie CB Cam Taylor-Britt grabbed his first career INT, leading to the Cincinnati defense celebrating with snow angels as chants of “Who Dey” rained down from the traveling fan base.
“I thought Lou and the staff did a great job formulating a plan,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “Our defensive line led the way by harassing (Allen), and everybody else fed off that. There was great communication on the back end. I’ll highlight the defensive ends, because they really got the party started, but I thought our whole defense played excellent throughout the whole game.”
The Bengals, which won at top-seeded Tennessee in the Divisional Playoff last year before taking the AFC title at Kansas City, now have a chance to become the fifth team in NFL history to win four consecutive road postseason games. Standing in their way of a second straight Super Bowl berth is once again Arrowhead Stadium, where they will meet a Chiefs offense that led the league during the regular season in points and passing yards per game.
“We’ve got to beat them one time in a row,” Taylor said. “Obviously, there’s more familiarity personnel-wise amongst both teams now. We understand the environment we’re walking into — that doesn’t hurt. But at the end of the day, it feels like we played them a really long time ago. Teams continue to evolve. Different strengths pop up, different weaknesses pop up, and so you’ve got to do the whole game planning thing all over again and get your guys ready to go.”
Sunday will mark just the third time over the past 35 years that the AFC Championship is a rematch of the same teams from the previous season, with the last two instances coming in 2011-12 (Patriots vs. Ravens) and 1986-87 (Broncos vs. Browns).
What to watch:
Last week, the Bengals came out and exerted their will in the trenches. Joe Mixon had 36 yards on his first four carries. The Bengals had 14 points on the board before the 70,000 at Highmark Stadium had settled into their snow-covered seats. It’s going to be a lot more difficult to do that this week against one of the best nose tackles in football. Jones and Nnadi comprise a formidable duo in the middle of the Kansas City line. The Bengals may have to pass to loosen up the Chiefs defensive front. But to do that, Burrow will have to get rid of the ball quickly and accurately. Ted Karras, Cordell Volson and Max Scharping appear poised to handle the challenge. The battle in the trenches will be one worth watching.
If Burrow has any time to throw, he’s proven deadly against the Kansas City secondary. Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo made a name for himself with the Giants, ending Tom Brady’s bid for a 19-0 season in 2007 when he was the architect of a defense that shut down the highest scoring offense in NFL history in Super Bowl XLII. On Dec. 4 against the Chiefs, he was 25-of-31 for 286 yards and two touchdowns, no interceptions. Burrow mentioned Friday how impressed he’s been this season with rookie corners Jaylen Watson and Trent McDuffie and how much progress they’ve made through the season. But he’ll not hesitate testing them with Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Hayden Hurst had two catches for 12 yards before leaving with a calf injury in the first half. If Hurst can stay on the field Sunday, he’ll be a huge weapon against Spag’s defense.
For all the talk of Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce, the real fear for Lou Anarumo could be running backs Jerick McKinnon and Isiah Pacheco running wild on the Bengals like they did on Dec. 4. The two combined for 22 carries and 117 yards. If they get going, it could keep the Bengals pass rush honest and give Mahomes that extra second to fire the ball downfield. Those two running backs are a huge reason the Chiefs finished No. 1 in the NFL in total offense at 413.6 yards per game. How will Anarumo employ linebackers Logan Wilson, Germaine Pratt and Akeem Davis-Gaither? Also, DJ Reader and BJ Hill against Creed Humphrey and Joe Thuney will as important as the Chiefs DL vs. the Bengals OL. How will Reader and Hill try to disrupt the Chiefs at the line of scrimmage?
Ever since severely spraining his right ankle last Saturday against Jacksonville, Patrick Mahomes has received the best possible treatment to get him ready for Sunday evening. Zac Taylor says the Bengals are preparing for the “best” Mahomes at quarterback. Smart idea. But that doesn’t mean you don’t force Mahomes to prove it. The Yankees refused to drop bunts on Curt Schilling in the 2004 ALCS with his bloody red ankle surgically repaired. The Bengals won’t make the same mistake. They have a quartet of pass rushers in Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Joseph Ossai and Cam Sample. You’re also going to see Mike Hilton come from all different angles to force Mahomes to move on that ankle and try to throw. Mahomes has always proven to be the best passer in the NFL on the run. The Bengals need to find out early if that’s still the case.
Flowers returned to full strength this week in practice and should be ready to draw the Kelce assignment. Kelce had just four catches for 56 yards in the Week 13 contest. The Bengals, for the most part, have done a very impressive job taking away tight ends in the last two seasons. This will be yet another supreme test for Anarumo’s gang. Last week, Dawson Knox had five catches for 65 yards. But 51 of those yards came on three catches in the fourth quarter, with the Bengals up, 27-10.
The Bengals do have swagger. They play with the right combination of confidence and focus that is befitting of a championship team. The Bengals also have a very strong sense of drive to finally complete something that just eluded their grasp a year ago. Bitter cold and another sea of red won’t phase them. Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones and the rest of the star-laden Chiefs won’t intimidate them. If we’ve learned anything from road playoff wins over the last two seasons in Tennessee, Kansas City and Buffalo – three of the very toughest places to win in the AFC – the Bengals don’t wilt in big situations with the bright lights on. The ending won’t be as dramatic this time but the result will be just as satisfying.
Bengals 27, Chiefs 20