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2022 NFL season: Five things to watch for in Bengals-Chiefs in AFC Championship Game

Cincinnati Bengals
2022 · 14-4-0
Kansas City Chiefs
2022 · 15-3-0

Welcome to Burrowhead Stadium?

Much has been made this week about Joe Burrow's success against the Kansas City Chiefs, going 3-0 over the past two seasons, including last year's AFC Championship Game win in K.C. Two of those games took place in Cincinnati, but that hasn't stopped some from considering Burrow Kansas City's kryptonite.

On Friday, Chiefs star defensive lineman Chris Jones flipped the script, slyly ending his presser: "Take care. See you all at Burrowhead Stadium."

Chiefs players have clearly heard the noise. Heard about how they have been unable to slow Burrow and the Bengals' explosive playmakers. Heard the reminders of last year's championship game in which they let a 21-3 first-half lead slip away to lose in overtime.

It's on.

The Bengals enter on a hot streak, having won 10 consecutive games. Despite missing three starting offensive linemen, Burrow continues to slice and dice defenses like a James Beard Award winner. Cincy's defense is an underrated ghoul, capable of slowing any offense, including the Chiefs' vaunted attack.

Kansas City's only loss in its last 12 games came at the hands of the Bengals in Week 13. Even with questions surrounding Patrick Mahomes' ankle, the Chiefs' offense still boasts creativity and playmakers to churn out yards and put up points. In addition, Steve Spagnuolo's defense has surged down the stretch, making tackles in space and finding pass-rush oomph it missed in the early half of the season.

If Jones' flippant "Burrowhead" comment Friday is any indication, we're in for a nasty battle Sunday night.

Here are five things to watch for when the Bengals visit the Chiefs on Sunday:

1) How might Patrick Mahomes' injury affect the Chiefs' offense? To hear Mahomes and the Chiefs talk this week, you'd think the MVP quarterback was in the clear after suffering a high ankle sprain in the Divisional Round. Mahomes even noted that the sprain wasn't as bad as the one he suffered in Week 1, 2019. The following week that season, he threw for 443 yards and four TDs. We know even playing through injury, Mahomes remains one of the most lethal passers in the NFL. But how might any lack of mobility change Andy Reid's game plan? Last week after the injury, the Chiefs got away from play-action in the second half. Mahomes also struggled to get to extended handoffs on the wobbly ankle. Then there is the question of Mahomes' mobility. Yes, he's dynamite in the pocket, but no one makes more plays out of the play's structure than Mahomes. He had 117 pass attempts outside the tackle box and 99 extended pass attempts (4+ secs) in 2022, most in NFL, per Next Gen Stats. His 116 pass attempts on the run (8+ mph) ranked second in the league. If Mahomes can't extend plays like he's used to, it could limit a Chiefs offense that has feasted from the QB's playmaking ability.

2) Will Joe Burrow dice up Steve Spagnuolo's defense? All week we've heard how Burrow is 3-0 versus Patrick Mahomes. The reality is Joe Cool is 3-0 versus Spag's defense. In those games, he's generating 327.3 pass yards per tilt, 9.1 yards per attempt, an 8-1 TD-INT ratio and a 121.0 passer rating. Burrow's ability to get the ball out quickly has negated offensive line injuries that have damaged the Bengals' blocking. A savant at reading and manipulating coverages, Burrow often beats a defense before the ball is snapped. When defenses do get pressure, the QB remains cool. Burrow ranked in the top five in completion percentage (60.6), TD-INT ratio (10-3), passer rating (98.1) and completion percentage over expected (+2.0) when under pressure in 2022. K.C.'s defense has come on strong down the stretch, and the pass rush dominated the Divisional Round against Jacksonville. Discombobulating Burrow, however, is a taller task, particularly with a young secondary. For Kansas City's defense to thrive, Chris Jones and Frank Clark must terrorize the Bengals' banged-up O-line.

3) Will Big Lou Anarumo's defense steal the show? While he's gotten more pop this postseason, Anarumo remains one of the most underrated play-callers in the NFL. His defense masters the ability to disguise coverages and blitzes, befuddling signal-callers. Cincy allowed the lowest completion percentage (58.1) and passer rating (79.9) in the NFL in 2022, including playoffs, all while compiling 33 sacks (29th in the NFL). With just one elected Pro Bowler (Trey Hendrickson), the Cincy D remains a force because it plays on a string, each part complementing the other. Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard can provide pressure from the edges, and D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill are strong in the interior. The back end with Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell provides playmaking from anywhere. Mike Hilton's a stud in coverage and on the blitz. Perhaps Anarumo and the Bengals' best attribute is their ability to morph on the fly, particularly against Mahomes. The K.C. QB has averaged lower passing YPG, passing yards per attempt, TD-INT ratio and passer rating in the second half/overtime versus the Bengals than any other opponent since 2021 (0 pass TDs, 2 INTs in the second half/OT in the last three games vs. CIN). Shut down Mahomes again, and Anarumo is sure to be the toast of Super Bowl week.

4) Who has the bigger day: the Bengals' Big Three receivers or Travis Kelce and K.C.'s WR committee? Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are as dangerous a trio of wideouts as any in the NFL. Chase provides big-play ability. Higgins is a contested catch-maven who thrives on the outside. Boyd represents one of the top slot wideouts in the NFL. Together they make up a dynamite corps that can make life miserable on any secondary. Bengals WRs led the NFL with 25 receiving TDs in 2022, 21 coming from the trio. It's not just the explosive plays that make Cincy's wideouts dynamic. They can pick up chunk yards from anywhere on the field. Chase leads all WRs with +134 yards after catch over expected on quick passes this season, including playoffs, per Next Gen Stats. Higgins has averaged 9.6 yards per target since 2021, including playoffs, the fifth-most in the NFL during that span (minimum 200 targets).

On the flip side, the Chiefs rely heavily on Kelce as a go-to target. The tight end led K.C. with 110 catches for 1,338 yards and 12 TDs, all far outdistancing any other Chiefs pass catcher. Kelce's rapport with Mahomes makes him nearly unguardable underneath. The big question is if the QB isn't able to adlib and buy time, will that hinder the connection with the 33-year-old tight end? Kelce had 10 catches for 95 yards and a TD catch in the 2021 AFC Championship Game, but was mostly held in check by Cincy in Week 13, netting four catches for 56 yards. Sunday could be the biggest test for a revamped receiver corps. Chiefs WRs had just three games with 100-plus receiving yards in 2022 -- JuJu Smith-Schuster (Weeks 6 and 7), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (Week 7). If Mahomes is limited, the Chiefs' offense needs JuJu and MVS to win, particularly over the middle. K.C. executed its plan to rely less on big plays to boost the offense during the offseason, ending the campaign No. 1 in yards and scoring. To beat the Bengals' stingy D, they need that plan to be even better Sunday.

5) Which team gets the leg up in the run game? Neither the Chiefs nor the Bengals rely heavily on the rushing attack to move the ball. But whichever backfield makes the most of those opportunities could get the upper hand.

The Bengals averaged just 95.5 rushing YPG in 2022 (29th in NFL). While Cincy might not bust explosive runs, it's a ground game that showed in Buffalo it can grind out tough yards, keeping the offense in down-and-distances to take shots and pick up first downs. If K.C.'s defense plays light boxes to stop the passing attack, Joe Mixon could take advantage. K.C. used light boxes on 53.4 percent of snaps in 2022, including playoffs. Mixon is averaging 4.6 yards per carry versus light boxes. In Week 13, when Mixon was out, Samaje Perine faced a light box on 18 of 21 rushes and gained 95 yards on those carries. 

Meanwhile, the Chiefs averaged 4.7 yards per carry (eighth in the NFL) but ran 24.5 times per game (25th). If they need to because of Mahomes' ankle, K.C. can run the ball well. Isiah Pacheco runs as fierce as any ball-carrier, mows over would-be tacklers and owns the speed to get outside. Pacheco's 728 rushing yards since Week 10, including playoffs, ranks third-most in NFL. The Chiefs' run game was on point in the Divisional Round against Jacksonville as the offensive line blew open holes and Pacheco dashed to the second level. The interior of the Bengals' D-line will make life more difficult Sunday. Given Jerick McKinnon's blitz-pickup ability, I expect him to see more snaps Sunday. McKinnon averaged 6.38 yards per carry in Week 13 and generated 95 scrimmage yards in the AFC Championship Game last season. His ability as both a runner and a dynamite pass-catcher, as well as his blocking prowess, makes him an X-factor Sunday.

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