AFC Championship: Special teams in focus ahead of Bengals-Chiefs showdown

Much of the talk after Kansas City’s overtime win over Buffalo on Sunday centered on what the Bills should have done to prevent Patrick Mahomes from getting another chance to set up the game-tying field goal.

That very situation is something the Cincinnati Bengals will be discussing in meetings this week ahead of their AFC Championship matchup with the Chiefs.

Buffalo’s kickoff went for a touchback after the Bills took a 36-33 lead with 13 seconds left, and Mahomes then completed two passes for 19 and 25 yards to put the Chiefs in field goal range. They tied the game on Harrison Butker’s 49-yarder and won it in overtime.

“There’s a lot that factors into that,” Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons said Monday. “Again, the weather factors into that, who’s back there returning the ball is certainly a major factor, then the time remaining and who you’re going against. Trying to give Patrick Mahomes the least opportunity you can give him. So all of that figures into it. I know everybody wants to ‘what should they have done? Should they have taken the touchback? Hit a squib, whatever.’ Everybody has their own strategy. Obviously with the quarterback and the skill players that Kansas City presents, you wanna give those guys as little time as possible to make any type of play. They left them a little bit too much time and we all saw what happened with the game tie-er and ultimately win in overtime.”

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Special teams has been a big area of improvement for the Bengals since the start of the season. They had to replace several key players in that phase of the game because of offseason departures and later injuries to return man Brandon Wilson and linebackers that were playing significant roles.

Simmons went to college at Kansas, playing about 50 miles away from Arrowhead Stadium, and said wind can be a factor for the kicking game this time of year.

Kansas City also features a lot of speed in its return game, and Simmons said that was evident in the first matchup when Cincinnati beat the Chiefs at home on Jan. 2. Byron Pringle averaged 24 yards on four returns to lead the way. Tyreek Hill had a punt return for 45 yards Sunday night against the Bills.

“It’s difficult to catch up to them for sure,” Simmons said. “I think you saw that the last time we played them. You know, obviously they’ve got several guys who can handle the ball and several guys with elite speed (Byron) Pringle, (Mecole) Hardman, and you saw Tyreek get back there again last night and show what he can still do. So, it’s certainly something we’ve get to control with spacing that we have between the ball and our cover players, and so we’re going to really ask (punter) Kevin (Huber) to do a good job of controlling the ball. Same thing with Evan (McPherson) and being efficient with the kicks and we’ve got to do a good job of staying the leverage. We’ve got to be great with our block destruction and physical play, and we’ve got to play with great separation and stay out in front of all this stuff because we certainly don’t want to let these guys go.”

Preparing for another pass rush

The Bengals struggled against the Titans’ pass rush Saturday, as Joe Burrow was sacked nine times. They are preparing for another strong defensive tackle in KC’s Chris Jones.

Jones had nine sacks this season.

Cincinnati allowed just two sacks the week prior against the Raiders, who featured strong interior and edge rushers as well, but the Titans were relentless in their pursuit of Burrow.

“The Raiders pass rush they were two great ends,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “Really, really dynamic pass rushers as far as pure ability to get after the quarterback. Tennessee was much different. They are much stronger, stouter, they’ve got a lot more power up front than anybody we faced in a while. They are kind of similar to some of the AFC North teams that are able to push the pocket and have great strength in the interior.

“Really, the Chiefs have a great interior rusher in Chris Jones, probably one of the best in the league, but different build and rusher type than (Tennessee’s) Jeffery Simmons, but still extremely effective. They’ve got good edge rushers and they play hard. They are a good team just a little different schematically than Tennessee is. Every team you play in the playoffs is rushing the passer, that’s usually why they are here. It’s just another talented front we are going to face. We face a lot of them all year. We are going to have to play well.”

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