KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs have lost three straight games to the Cincinnati Bengals, including last year’s AFC title game, when they blew an early 21-3 lead in an overtime defeat before a sea of stunned fans inside Arrowhead Stadium.
Patrick Mahomes, who expects to lead the Chiefs against the Bengals on a sprained right ankle in Sunday night’s rematch, is likewise winless against Bengals counterpart Joe Burrow, the only quarterback to have beaten him three straight times.
In other words, there’s a reason the AFC North champions are imbued with a certain degree of confidence as they return to Kansas City, where the burgeoning rivals will once again determine who represents the AFC in the Super Bowl.
“Your preparation leads to confidence. That’s just what you see from Joe and all of our players,” explained the even-keeled Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who has somehow out-schemed, out-coached and gotten his team to out-execute Andy Reid and his Chiefs over the past 13 months. “So when they walk on the field on Sunday, they’re relaxed.”
In fact, the Bengals are so confident that some have taken to calling the Chiefs’ home “Burrowhead Stadium.”
Which, as you can imagine, doesn’t sit well with the AFC West champs.
“I’m sure a lot of guys are aware of the comments they’re making,” Chiefs wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster admitted. “The Bengals have always been the rah-rah team, and they back it up. And they’re doing so again in the postseason.”
Yet it’s not as if the Bengals, who roared past the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round, have dominated the Chiefs, who took care of the Jacksonville Jaguars despite losing Mahomes for most of a quarter following his injury.
All three of their meetings have been decided by just three points each.
“We know what team we’re playing, a team that has been to this game the last five seasons, and they’ve all been in that stadium,” Burrow said. “So to me, they’re still the team to beat and we’re coming for them, but we know it’s going to be tough. We know it’s going to be hard-fought, and we know the kind of players they have on that side.”
Their matchup in last year’s title game was a classic. Mahomes threw three first-half touchdown passes, then Burrow led a dramatic comeback for Cincinnati. And when the Chiefs’ Harrison Butker kicked a 41-yard field goal with no time left to send the game to overtime, the Bengals quickly picked off Mahomes to set up Evan McPherson’s winning kick.
“Listen, they probably should be confident. They’ve won three games,” said Reid, who is trying to guide Kansas City back to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons. “That’s OK. We’re still going to play the game.”
Besides, the Chiefs have a quiet confidence about them, too.
“I would say they know us. We know them. And we’re all searching for that little extra that you can throw at them,” Reid said. “We’ve played each other enough that I’m sure both sides feel the same way.”
MAHOMES ON THE MEND
The Chiefs’ All-Pro quarterback practiced as usual this week, and Mahomes’ ailing right ankle did not appear more heavily taped than the left. His ability to scramble is a big part of his game, though, particularly when it comes to finding time to make off-schedule throws, and any hesitation could be costly for Kansas City’s offense.
“It’s about being a competitor,” Mahomes said this week. “You want to be out there, especially in these games.”
RECHARGED RUN GAME
The Bengals often struggled to run the ball this season, but Joe Mixon dominated the Bills last week, despite an offensive line forced to use a trio of backups because of injuries. He finished with 105 yards rushing and a touchdown.
“That’s nothing I’m surprised about,” Mixon said. “At the same time it’s a great thing to be able to contribute in a major way with my teammates in a crucial moment. So as the moments get bigger, I’ve just got to keep elevating my game.”
SPEAKING OF RUNNING
Whatever the limitations on Mahomes because of his ankle, the Chiefs will almost certainly try to help him out by getting their run game going. Isiah Pacheco had 95 yards on just 12 carries last week, and the bulk of that came during a 12-play, 98-yard drive when Mahomes was getting examined and backup Chad Henne was in the game.
A big part of Burrow’s success is getting the ball out quickly, before pass rushers can find a lane and defenders can process what’s happening. His release time averaged about 2 1/2 seconds last week and the Bills sacked him just once.
“We can’t let him sit back in the pocket and get into rhythm throws because that’s when he’s most dangerous,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. “You’re not going to win games if you don’t get sacks and turnovers, especially against a team like this.”
The Bengals have one of the league’s best groups of wide receivers, headlined by Ja’Marr Chase, who set the franchise’s single-game record with 266 yards receiving in a regular-season win over Kansas City last season.
They’ll be facing one of the youngest defensive backfields, which often has three rookie corners and a rookie safety on the field at once.
“Hopefully we’ve grown enough that we can match what they put out there,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “This is an elite group we’re going against. We have to have an elite game. We have to play our best game of the year.”
CINCINNATI (14-4) at KANSAS CITY (15-3)
Sunday, 6:30 p.m. EST, CBS
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK NFL LINE: Bengals by 1 1/2.
AGAINST THE SPREAD: Bengals 13-5, Chiefs 6-11-1.
SERIES RECORD: Bengals lead 18-14.
LAST MEETING: Bengals beat Chiefs 27-24 on Dec. 4 in Cincinnati.
LAST WEEK: Bengals beat Bills 27-10; Chiefs beat Jaguars 27-20.
BENGALS OFFENSE: OVERALL (8), RUSH (7), PASS (5), SCORING (29).
BENGALS DEFENSE: OVERALL (16), RUSH (7), PASS (23), SCORING (6).
CHIEFS OFFENSE: OVERALL (1), RUSH (20), PASS (1), SCORING (1)
CHIEFS DEFENSE: OVERALL (11), RUSH (8), PASS (18), SCORING (16)
TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Bengals plus-6; Chiefs minus-3.
BENGALS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Joe Burrow is 3-0 against Chiefs counterpart Patrick Mahomes, including his comeback win in last year’s AFC title game. He’s coming off a season in which he set Bengals records for completions (414), pass attempts (606) and touchdown passes (35). He threw for 250 yards with two touchdowns and a pick in last year’s AFC championship game.
CHIEFS PLAYER TO WATCH: All eyes are on Mahomes, and more specifically his right ankle, which was sprained in last weekend’s divisional win over Jacksonville. Mahomes had X-rays during the game but returned to lead Kansas City to the eventual clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. He had an MRI exam the following day that confirmed a high ankle sprain, but Mahomes and Chiefs coach Andy Reid insisted all week that he would play against the Bengals. The All-Pro quarterback has had perhaps his best season, throwing for a career-high 5,250 yards with 41 touchdown passes.
KEY MATCHUP: The Bengals’ fleet of wide receivers, led by Ja’Marr Chase, against the Kansas City defensive backfield, which regularly plays three rookie cornerbacks and a rookie safety. Chase had seven catches for 97 yards in the Bengals’ 27-24 win in December, while Tyler Boyd had four catches for 60 yards and Tee Higgins had three for 35 yards and a score.
INJURIES: Bengals OG Alex Cappa (ankle) and OT Jonah Williams (knee) missed practice this week while CB Tre Flowers (hamstring) and LB Joe Bachie (foot) were limited. Chiefs WR Mecole Hardman (pelvis) also was limited.
SERIES NOTES: The Bengals have won three straight against Kansas City, all by three points, with two of them being played in Cincinnati. The one played in Kansas City was last year’s AFC title game, when the Bengals rallied from an early 21-3 deficit to win 27-24 in overtime. That was the first postseason game played between the two former AFL rivals, who first met in Cincinnati’s inaugural season of 1968. Andy Reid is 1-4 against the Bengals, and Mahomes is 1-3, since the coach and quarterback joined the Chiefs. The Bengals won their most recent meeting, 27-24 in December.
STATS AND STUFF: This is the record fifth straight conference championship game hosted by Kansas City. The five consecutive appearances by the Chiefs are tied with Oakland (1973-77) and behind only the Patriots (2011-18) for the most in NFL history. … The Bengals are making their fourth AFC championship appearance. … Bengals RB Joe Mixon needs 43 yards rushing to pass Pete Johnson (5,421) for fourth in franchise history. … Chase set the Bengals single-game record for yards receiving with 266 against Kansas City in a win on Jan. 2, 2022. … Bengals K Evan McPherson was 4 for 4 on field goals and hit his only PAT try in last year’s AFC title game. … Cincinnati ran for 172 yards in last week’s divisional win over Buffalo, the fourth-best postseason total in franchise history. … Chiefs coach Andy Reid is tied with Tom Landry with 20 postseason wins. The only coach with more is the Patriots’ Bill Belichick (31). … TE Travis Kelce and LS James Winchester set the Chiefs record last week with their 16th career playoff games. … Kelce had 14 catches last week against Jacksonville, setting a Chiefs playoff record. The total was one off the NFL postseason record shared by the Saints’ Darren Sproles and the Patriots’ James White. … Kelce has 1,389 yards receiving in the playoffs, tied with the retired Rob Gronkowski for third in NFL history. Kelce needs 53 yards to pass Julian Edelman for second behind Jerry Rice. … Mahomes is 9-3 in the playoffs as an NFL starter. … Mahomes needs three TD passes to pass Dan Marino (32) for eighth on the league’s career postseason list. … Mahomes and Chiefs backup Chad Henne will become two of five QBs to be active for five consecutive conference championship games. Tom Brady, Ken Stabler and Daryle Lamonica are the others. … Chiefs DE Frank Clark has 12 playoff sacks, tied with Reggie White for No. 4 on the career list since they became an official stat in 1982.