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2021 NFL playoffs: What to watch for in Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship Game

The Cincinnati Bengals are authoring their own fairy tale. Standing between them and a storybook ending is a Goliath wearing red and yellow.

The AFC Championship Game is the comfort zone of the Kansas City Chiefs, who are appearing in their fourth straight clash for the conference title and have won the last two. To get to the Super Bowl, the AFC participant must first go through Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest environments in football.

That's the challenge that awaits these Bengals. Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce headline the offense. Defensively, it's all about Chris Jones, Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu.

The Bengals didn't just get here by chance, though -- they pack their own punch. Second-year quarterback Joe Burrow is on a hot streak that stretches back to the end of Cincinnati's bye week, and rookie receiver Ja'Marr Chase is in the midst of an incredible debut campaign, earning Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors.

Might we add these teams are fairly familiar? Cincinnati defeated Kansas City, 34-31, in Week 17 to clinch the AFC North crown, and Burrow threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns in the win. The Bengals aren't going to be intimidated by the reigning conference champions.

We'll find out just how much weight that regular-season triumph carries Sunday.

Here are four things to watch when the Chiefs play host to the Bengals:

  1. Can Joe and Ja'Marr light it up again? Time for a weird history note: Sunday will be the first postseason meeting between the Bengals and Chiefs. The last time two teams met in a playoff game for the first time in a conference title game was in 2013, when the Seahawks beat the defending NFC champion 49ers. Russell Wilson was 25 years and 65 days old when his Seahawks won that day. Burrow will be that exact age Sunday. The Illuminati is at it again! But seriously, the bigger question here lies within the Bengals' offense. Cincinnati exploded for 475 yards in Week 17, with 446 coming from Burrow's arm. Burrow and Chase set multiple records, including Chase's 266 receiving yards, the most by a rookie receiver in a single game in the league's 102-season history. That's an incredibly high ceiling to expect a team to meet a second time in a high-stakes matchup. Quarterbacks with 400-plus passing yards versus a regular-season opponent are 2-2 in conference championship rematches all time. The last to win under such circumstances: Mahomes in 2019. So while we can't exactly count on a repeat performance from Burrow and Chase, if we consider Burrow's ability to weather nine sacks and still win a playoff game, and then mix in Kansas City's 23rd-ranked pass rush in terms of sack rate, it's not exactly the worst mix of conditions for Burrow, Chase and Co.
  2. Have the Chiefs learned from Week 17? Kansas City took a 21-7 lead in Cincinnati and appeared to be cruising toward a victory when the Bengals awoke, turned the tables on the Chiefs and emerged victorious. A big reason for their comeback was the play of their defense, which limited Kansas City's offense to just three points in the second half of their regular-season meeting, buying Cincinnati's offense enough time to stage a comeback. Mahomes completed 9 of 13 passes for a grand total of 50 yards in the second half of that game, and the Chiefs possessed the ball just three times in the final two quarters. Meanwhile, Burrow got busy, completing 15 of 18 attempts for 253 yards and two touchdowns. The difference this time around could come down to the intel that's available. Kansas City has a full game's worth of tape to use to prepare for what Cincinnati might be bringing to the table. It took a four-quarter effort for the Bengals to take down the Chiefs. Armed with the knowledge gained from their first meeting, Kansas City should be better-equipped to respond quicker in their second meeting. Then again, teams that faced the last squad to beat them in the regular season again in the conference championship are just 2-7 in nine games. It will likely take more than film-based adjustments to prevail this time around.
  3. Will we get any defense Sunday? Their first meeting produced 65 points and 889 combined yards. Mahomes has tied for the most passing and rushing touchdowns in a two-game span in postseason history with nine. Mahomes and Burrow each own a passer rating over 101 in the playoffs, and Mahomes carries an 8-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio into this game. They're both averaging over 295 passing yards per game. The only area in which the Bengals aren't holding serve with the Chiefs in points per game, a category in which the Chiefs own a 19.5 point advantage. So should we expect another shootout like Week 17, or the one we saw in Kansas City last weekend? Cincinnati's defense might have something to say about that, as could Mathieu's game status as he attempts to return from concussion protocol. But the recent history certainly suggests we'll see plenty of points once again.
  4. Which kicker can we trust more? Harrison Butker was steadily building quite a reputation for himself as a kicker capable of hitting the long attempts and converting nearly all of his attempts, but missed two kicks last weekend -- an extra point and a field goal -- that required the Chiefs to again turn to him to send them to overtime just to stay alive. Meanwhile, Evan McPherson has been dialed in, converting every kick he's attempted in his last three games. McPherson's blemish-free streak began in that Week 17 win over Kansas City in which he hit a chip shot to send the Bengals to victory. He's since kicked them to another last-second victory and has accounted for 27 of the Bengals' last 45 points. So if the game comes down to the talented feet of two specialists, who might prevail? We'll let Sunday tell us that answer.

NFL Research: Patrick Mahomes is 8-0 versus opposing quarterbacks not named Tom Brady in the postseason. In his two postseason losses in his career, Brady was the quarterback of the winning team (Patriots in 2018, Buccaneers in 2020).

Next Gen Stat of the matchup: Ja'Marr Chase set the Next Gen Stats-era record for the most regular-season receiving yards on go routes this season with 542. Speed demon Tyreek Hill, meanwhile, has posted career-low marks on such routes, catching four passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns (including playoffs), illustrating how Hill's role has evolved in Kansas City's offense.

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