AFC Championship: Bengals defense gets ready for rematch

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton (21) celebrates and interception he made against Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) during the second half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton (21) celebrates and interception he made against Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) during the second half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said he enjoyed just being a football fan Sunday night watching the back-and-forth battle between the Chiefs and Bills to determine who the Bengals will meet in the AFC Championship.

After seeing the lead change hands three times in the final two minutes – and 25 points scored during that stretch – Anarumo was just glad the Bengals only have to play one of those teams. Kansas City tied the game with a 49-yard field goal to end regulation, then won it overtime on Patrick Mahomes’ 8-yard touchdown pass to Travis Kelce on the first drive.

The Bengals are preparing to face Mahomes for a second time this season Sunday in the AFC title game at Arrowhead Stadium.

“I just think the familiarity with the team (helps), just like we have a division opponent so you get a chance to get a feel for, ‘Hey, this is what these guys are really all about’ as opposed to a team you play once every four years or so,” Anarumo said. “So, we have that going. I think that’s the biggest thing. They know us, we know them. Then see what worked, what didn’t work in the first game and kind of have some changeups as we go into it.”

The Bengals beat the Chiefs 34-31 in Cincinnati to clinch the AFC North title in the second to last game of the regular season, winning it on Evan McPherson’s field goal as time expired. Mahomes threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns, while Kelce was limited to five catches for 25 yards and speedster Tyreek Hill had just six catches for 40 yards.

Kansas City showed its explosiveness Sunday against the Bills, though, and the Bengals have relied on their defense and special teams to win two playoff games so far. Apparently the oddsmakers are expecting a shootout, and Cincinnati’s offense hasn’t shown enough lately to make them believe the Bengals can keep pace this time on the road.

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Anarumo believes in his defense, though. The Bengals have five takeaways in two playoff games and limited the Raiders and Titans to 19 points or less. They dropped at least two interceptions against Kansas City the first matchup.

“I think that the takeaways that we’ve gotten have come at timely moments in the games, and then when we’ve needed a stop at a crucial time, we’ve gotten it,” Anarumo said. “Every week is a grind in the season, then you get to the playoffs and it ramps up and you’re playing explosive offenses every week. So, you don’t want to give up yards, but some of this stuff is inevitable. It’s always about points. You want to do a great job in limiting yards, but at the end of the day, limit the points, win the game, and how do you do that? You do that by playing great red-zone defense, taking possessions away from them on takeaways. We have to do that this weekend to give us a chance to be successful.”

The defense has made stops on six of eight red-zone situations in the playoffs. On Saturday against the Titans, the Bengals intercepted Ryan Tannehill three times, including on one trip to the redzone and the first and last defensive plays of the game.

Their two playoff opponents were a combined 1-of-4 in goal-to-go situations.

“It’s something we stress,” Anarumo said. “We’ve got a good blend of things that we do down there. We’re constantly changing it. The guys execute. So, they understand how important it is down there to keep make them kick field goals. That’s going to be huge this week, obviously. Just staying focused and we cannot allow touchdowns. We’ve got to make them kick field goals.”

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Hill and Kelce were big concerns going into the first matchup, and although the Bengals found success the first time, they aren’t expecting what worked the first time to necessarily be enough this time.

On Sunday against Buffalo, Hill caught 11 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown, and he had 1,239 yards receiving in the regular season. Kelce caught eight passes for 96 yards and an incredible game-winning touchdown. He finished the regular season with 1,175 yards receiving.

Anarumo said Hill is “one of the fastest guys on the planet” so it’s tough to simulate him in practice but he credited the practice squad guys with helping them prepare and was pleased with how the plan worked out last time.

“I just think guys sticking with the plan and knowing what type of leverage we wanted to play on him, and where and when the help was coming from on him,” Anarumo said. “So without giving too much away, we’ll see how that looked and how we did there. The yards came out good for us the first time. But they’ll watch that too, and have something, but we’ll certainly have some changeups, for sure.”

Holding the Chiefs without a touchdown in the second half on Jan. 2 gave the Bengals confidence they can replicate their success.

“I know we’ll be confident when we go in,” Anarumo said. “They’re a great, great football team and we’ll have to be at our best. We’re not going to survive if we don’t catch those interceptions that we dropped the first time, if he indeed gives us the opportunities. We have to make plays that way. We’ll be confident. We’ve been that way all year. They’re a great football team. We have great respect for them and we’ll put our best foot forward on Sunday.”


Bengals at Chiefs, 3 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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