No. 4 Bengals (12-7, AFC North Champion) at No. 2 Chiefs (14-5, AFC West Champion) Sunday, Jan. 30 at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium (natural grass), 3:05 p.m. ET, TV: WKRC-TV Ch. 12 (CBS, Paramount+), Radio: WEBN-FM (102.7 FM), 700WLW, ESPN1530
CINCINNATI – The upstart team in stripes is 60 minutes from a real-life Hollywood story.
After going 31 years without a taste of playoff success, these Bengals will punch their ticket to Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium if they capture their third playoff win in three weeks Sunday in Kansas City.
To get there, they must find a way to defeat Patrick Mahomes and the two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs for the second time in the month of January. This time, they won’t have the Jungle behind them. They’ll have to deal with one of the loudest venues in pro sports as Arrowhead Stadium will be at full throat, something the Bengals have tried to prepare for this week in practice, through piped-in crowd noise inside Paul Brown Stadium.
The decibels from the 73,000 will approach jet-engine levels. Last week, that clearly disrupted the communications along the offensive line early on, as the Bengals suffered sack after sack after sack in the first half.
“It really starts with me, getting the play in quickly so Joe’s got time to discuss in the huddle and make the adjustments at the line of scrimmage that we need to make,” Zac Taylor told me. “We’ve played in really loud environments before. I know this will be a different situation and with that brings kind of a different ramp up of crowd noise. We’ve been in (Paul Brown Stadium). We’ve used our stadium speakers and I think they’ve been really effective and allowed us to get good quality work and stress our communications so that we’ll be ready on Sunday.”
The last time the Bengals played the Chiefs: pic.twitter.com/1034P2wVlE
— WINCINNATI (@WINCINNATI_) January 25, 2022
Taylor has hammered on the point of details and keeping the eye on the prize in Kansas City and absolutely no further west toward Southern California.
“We have to have a narrow focus and this needs to be the best seven days we’ve had as Bengals yet, and not just on the practice field just overall. Put yourself in the best position to be at your best on Sunday, and not look beyond that.
“Our focus right now is being AFC champions, and to do that, we’ve got to go through the team that’s played in the last four AFC Championship games, the last two Super Bowls. I think it’s appropriate that if you want to get where you want to go, you’ve got to go through Kansas City. Again, that’s our whole narrow focus.”
The Bengals allowed three first-quarter sacks against the Titans, the first time a team allowed that many in a quarter of postseason play since the Eagles had Donovan McNabb sacked three times in the first quarter of Super Bowl XXXIX. Of course, that was just the beginning as Burrow hit the ground nine times but lived to tell the tale in a 19-16 Bengals win.
“It feels great,” said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. “This is the expectation for these guys — it’s not too big for them.
“I know we haven’t been here before, but it sure feels like we have. You see the attitude of the team and the confidence that they have, that we’re going to find a way to win. You just can’t replace the confidence that these guys have earned in themselves.”
While the Bengals are only 7-14 all-time in the playoffs, they are 2-0 at this level, having beaten the Chargers, 27-7, in the “Ice Bowl” AFC Championship on Jan. 10, 1982, and the Bills, 21-10, in the AFC title game on Jan. 8, 1989. Both games, however, were in the old Jungle at Riverfront Stadium.
This is the fourth straight season the Chiefs will host the AFC title game at Arrowhead, a new NFL record. The Chiefs lost in overtime in Jan. 2019 to the Patriots before knocking off the Titans and Bills in the last two seasons. The Chiefs, of course, beat the Bills, 42-36, in an overtime classic last Sunday that had the two teams combine for 31 points in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime.
Mahomes completed 33 passes for 378 yards with three TDs and one rushing touchdown last week. The week prior, KC defeated the Steelers 42-21 in the AFC Wild Card Round. Mahomes threw five TDs to five different players. KC finished regular season play with a 12-5 record and the number two seed in the AFC.
The Chiefs finished the 2021 season winning nine of their last 10 games after a 3-4 start. The only loss in those final 10 games was the 34-31 thriller won by the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Evan McPherson’s game-winning kick at the gun. The Chiefs are one game away from their third straight Super Bowl appearance.
“I don’t think you go there,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “In this thing, you’re trying to exhaust every minute on the team you’re playing and if you’re at this level, they’re a good football team. Cincinnati is that team now. You don’t even let your mind go to the other place (Super Bowl), at least I don’t. You get into trouble doing that. You’ve got to spend the time on the team you’re playing, and that’s where we’re at right now.”
Joe Burrow: While taking 11 sacks in two games (9 last week vs. Titans), Burrow has followed rule No. 1 of the playoffs, don’t turn the ball over. His only interception was a dropped pass by Samaje Perine that landed in the hands of Amani Hooker and was ruled an interception as he had control before it hit the grass. If Burrow can stay out of the interception column like he did in his last two regular season games against the Ravens and Chiefs (9 TD, 0 INTs), the chances for a Bengals upset rise dramatically. Burrow’s intangible of playing to the moment is one of the many reasons his teammates (rightly) put so much trust in him. From beating Alabama on the road, to crushing Oklahoma to rallying against Clemson in the national championship, Burrow did it all in 2019. This season, he rallied the team in Denver, steadied the ship against the Raiders and made the biggest pass of the season with 20 seconds left against the Titans. Another big moment awaits Sunday at Arrowhead.
Ja’Marr Chase vs. Steve Spagnuolo: What will Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo do about the Bengals wide receiver? Will he play essentially the same defense and expect his secondary to make a tackle and not to get drag-raced to the end zone or will he throw some match zones against him? After 11 catches in 12 targets for 266 yards and three touchdowns on Jan. 2, Spagnuolo will likely throw some new wrinkle at both Burrow and Chase. “He has a good scheme and he’s relentless in the working categories,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid told me. “He’s going to spend the time to make sure he covers everything.”
Tee Higgins: If Spagnuolo does spend more ammunition on Chase, there should be more chances for Higgins. Higgins had another very good year for the Bengals, and he came alive last week in Tennessee, catching seven passes on nine targets for 96 yards. He has been clutch over the middle for Burrow when teams have taken away Chase outside the numbers.
Tyrann Mathieu: The Chiefs secondary looked very vulnerable last Sunday when their leader Tyrann Mathieu went out with a concussion in the first quarter after a collision with defensive tackle Jarran Reed and did not return. That might be part of the reason Gabriel Davis was able to get so open for an NFL record four touchdowns in a playoff game, including the go-ahead score with 13 seconds left. Mathieu returned to full participation at practice Thursday and should be a go for the game.
Patrick Mahomes: This is Lou Anarumo’s biggest challenge of his career. Contain the game’s most dynamic and explosive quarterback. Part of the strategy will be having eyes on the quarterback at all times so that he doesn’t take off up the middle for 20 or 30-yard runs like he did with the Bills. Nothing kills a defense more than having Mahomes third-and-8 and watching him take off for a 15-yard joyride up the middle. Of course, the quarterback can make any throw from any spot on the field. Mahomes was at his very best when the Chiefs needed him most last weekend. Down, 29-26, Mahomes threw a dart over the middle to Tyreek Hill and he raced 64 yards for a go-ahead TD. With 13 seconds left, he hit Hill for 19 yards and Travis Kelce for 25 yards to set-up the game-tying field goal. In overtime, he was 6-for-6 for 69 yards and the game-winner to Kelce in a perfect spot.
Pattern Match Zone: Will Anarumo take a page out of the Nick Saban-Bill Belichick book and go with a defense that meshes man defense close to the line of scrimmage to deny easy and free releases and then have a nickel or dime secondary behind it to try and contain (contain being the critical word here) the group of Hill, Byron Pringle, Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, Jerick McKinnon and Travis Kelce? Aside from Hill getting behind everyone at the end of the first half (saved by Vonn Bell), it worked brilliantly in the second half on Jan. 2.
Clutch play after clutch play. The defense continues to deliver.
📺: AFC Championship Game – 1/30 on CBS pic.twitter.com/I9O3cvGrMF
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) January 24, 2022
Red zone defense: This has been the Bengals calling card in two playoff wins. It will have to be again if the Stripes are to make it to the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years. Not many things can silence a roaring crowd of 73,000 at Arrowhead quite like holding a high-power Chiefs offense to field goals or nothing inside the 20. The Bengals were 4-for-5 in keeping the Raiders out of the end zone in the red zone in the Wild Card round. They allowed only a direct snap TD run to Derrick Henry in three chances last week. When Travis Kelce is in the red zone, don’t be surprised to see double-teams as Anarumo won’t have to worry about speedy receivers breaking loose 40 yards downfield. This is also the area where it’s more likely Anarumo turns a blitz or two loose on Mahomes, like he did on his Jessie Bates ‘0-blitz’ in the fourth quarter Jan. 2 that held the Chiefs to a game-tying field goal.
What more needs to be said about one of the best rookie kicking seasons in recent NFL memory? Evan McPherson has been “Money Mac”, “Shooter” and “EZ-Evan” all rolled into one. He’s converted all eight field goal attempts in the playoffs and all three extra points. He’s account for 27 of Cincinnati’s 45 points in the postseason.
— NFL (@NFL) January 24, 2022
Kevin Huber punted five times against the Titans, with two downed inside the 20. A veteran punter in a big game can be a crucial weapon, especially when the goal is to make the Chiefs drive as much of the field as possible.
The #Bengals special teams have an advantage – keep your eyes on play makers like Tre Flowers.
🔶 Bengals have a 85.3 PFF Special Teams Grade… 2nd best in the playoffs
🔴 Chiefs have a 62.9 Special Teams Grade… ranks 11th of 14 in the playoffs.pic.twitter.com/iJ4qx5F4fh
— Willie Lutz (@willie_lutz) January 28, 2022
Harrison Butker might have missed a 50-yarder before halftime against the Bills and yanked an extra point wide last Sunday, but he is also one of the game’s better kickers in the clutch. With the game on the line, he drilled a 49-yarder to send the game to overtime before Travis Kelce won it. In Jan. 2019, he nailed a 39-yarder to send the AFC Championship to overtime before Rex Burkhead sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
Not called upon often, Tommy Townsend only had two punts Sunday but they were beauties. He had a 50-yarder from his end zone that flipped the field and a 38-yarder that pinned the Bills at their 8. Four of his six punts this postseason have pinned the opponent inside the 20.
The Divisional Round #NFLWayToPlay Award recipient…@Bengals LB Logan Wilson 👏@criscarter80 breaks down the play that earned @ljw21 a $2,500 equipment grant for the youth football program of his choice ⬇️https://t.co/nFK1rziTMS | via @gmfb pic.twitter.com/R8qnaMMAu6
— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) January 27, 2022
The Bengals have come this far on guile, determination and Joe Burrow’s ability to get up off the ground after constant pressure and hits. The Bengals also have that quality that champions possess – the ability to come up with a big play at the big moment. Against the Raiders, it was Germaine Pratt stepping in front of a Derek Carr pass with 12 seconds left. Against the Titans, it was Eli Apple deflecting a Ryan Tannehill pass into the waiting arms of Logan Wilson. And, in Joe Burrow, the Bengals have one of the biggest big-game quarterbacks to counter the game’s most dynamic and feared quarterback. The Bengals’ wild safari ride through the AFC leads them through wilderness in Kansas City and onto the Hollywood set for a shot at a long-awaited prize. Evan McPherson does it again, this time in OT.
Bengals 36, Chiefs 33, OT