Bookies and sports bettors don’t even know what to make of the AFC Championship matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
Patrick Mahomes’ ankle injury in a divisional round win over Jacksonville, followed by Cincinnati’s dominant win at Buffalo, led to the visiting Bengals being the initial favorites when the betting lines opened. But those numbers kept fluctuating through the week and now Kansas City is the favorite, and the Bengals once again find themselves in a comfortable spot as the underdogs.
Cincinnati is the defending AFC champion and already has beaten Kansas City three times in the last 13 months, but the Chiefs are hosting a fifthstraight conference final and are the No. 1 seed. The Bengals are trying to repeat for another shot at a Super Bowl title, which has eluded them in all three of their past attempts. Kansas City won the Lombardi Trophy twice, most recently in 2019.
Here are five things to know about the game Sunday:
1. A new rivalry
Players in the Bengals locker room this week said this game has a divisional game feel to it because of how often the teams have played the past two seasons. Kansas City is becoming a new rival.
The Bengals lead the all-time series with the Chiefs and have won seven of the last eight and three in the 2022 calendar year, but quarterback Joe Burrow said going into Arrowhead Stadium, even after beating Mahomes three straight times, is no small task.
Adding to the intensity of playing for a spot in the Super Bowl, there has been some banter between the teams that could create for some added fuel to the fire. Last month before the teams played in Cincinnati, Chiefs safety Justin Reid did a little trash-talking on tight end Hayden Hurst but confused his name with Rams tight end Tyler Higbee, then incorrectly corrected himself to say he was going to lock down Tee Higgins.
This week linebacker Willie Gay was asked what impressed him about the Bengals’ offense, to which he responded simply: “Nothing.” Cincinnati players said they were unaware of Gay’s comments but weren’t bothered by them because the Bengals know the talented players they have. They weren’t without their own bit of banter. Mike Hilton’s referral to Arrowhead Stadium as “Burrowhead Stadium” seemed to set Chiefs fans and players off this week.
“The last three games have been close,” Higgins said when asked why there is so much banter. “Close games, I feel like we’re building a rivalry, and it’s just great competition at the end of the day. At the end of the day, both teams want to get the Super Bowl, so it’s gonna be a lot of animosity and a lot of talking, but we’ve just got to play.”
2. Health of Mahomes and Kelce?
Mahomes was noticeably limping in the second half after he suffered a high ankle sprain against Jacksonville last week, but reports out of Kansas City this week seemed to indicate he wasn’t showing any signs of mobility issues. He was full-go and not even listed on the game status report for Sunday.
That doesn’t mean he will be 100 percent or that recurrence isn’t a concern, but even the Bengals players and coaches this week said they were preparing as they normally would for the league’s top passer. They will be hoping to repeat their effort against Mahomes in the two games last season when he had less than 60 yards passing in the second half of both.
Meanwhile, tight end Travis Kelce did pop up on the injury report Friday as questionable with a back issue, though he was a full participant in practice. Three wide receivers also had issues Friday, including Mecole Hardman, who was limited with a pelvis injury that has sidelined him since Week 9, and Justin Watson, who did not practice because of an illness. Top wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was limited with a knee injury but his game status is not in question, while the others are questionable.
The Bengals have figured out how to limit Kelce for the most part in their three recent matchups. He had just five catches for 25 yards in the Week 17 game last year and just four catches for 56 yards in the Week 13 game this season. Tre Flowers, returning from injury, or Dax Hill likely will be tasked with stopping Kelce.
“You’ve just got to slow down their playmakers,” linebacker Germaine Pratt said. “You’ve got to hold Mahomes, make him do checkdowns and whatever the case may be, and you’ve got to stop Kelce. That’s his go-to guy, so you’ve got to eliminate his touches and make other people beat us.”
3. Chase’s past success vs. Chiefs
The best game of Ja’Marr Chase’s two-year NFL career came against the Chiefs, the first time he faced them last season, when he caught 11 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 comeback win for the AFC North title.
Kansas City seemed to figure some things out the second and third times against Chase, but he still had big plays to put the Bengals in scoring position and he will still be a factor Sunday.
“I feel like they just let me have everything underneath, played off a lot, basically what Baltimore did, bailed, kept everything over the top, protected everything over the top and made sure we kept everything underneath,” Chase said. “So they gave us what we wanted.”
Chase has been utilized in so many different ways, the Bengals don’t mind if they have to get the ball to him on shorter passes. Eventually, he knows the big passes will open up for him or teammates like Tee Higgins, who had six catches for 103 yards in the AFC championship last year, or Tyler Boyd.
Higgins said Kansas City’s defensive backs like to challenge the receivers and press a lot. Burrow has seen a lot of growth in the Chiefs’ rookies in the secondary, as well, so those matchups will be fun to watch.
4. The Chris Jones factor
Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones is one of three finalists for The Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award, and he creates cause for concern for any fully healthy offensive line, let alone one using backups. The Bengals had no problems with the Bills’ defensive line last week, but Jones is playing at another level.
Cincinnati is still without right guard Alex Cappa and left tackle Jonah Williams, though they are showing improvement from ankle and knee injuries and could potentially be available for the Super Bowl if the Bengals win Sunday. Right tackle La’el Collins is on injured reserve with a torn ACL, so the line will still consist of Jackson Carman at left tackle, Max Scharping at right guard and Hakeem Adeniji at right tackle.
Jones had two sacks on Burrow in the Week 17 matchup last season but didn’t even have a single quarterback hit the past two meetings, so the Bengals will be hoping for similar protection Sunday.
“Incredibly productive player,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “He’s a game-wrecking type force up front. ... He lines up at end, up the shade and the three, he’s an extremely disruptive player so you do everything you can to minimize him.”
5. Turnovers are still the key
Cincinnati’s defense has been a turnover machine since the playoffs last year, and turnover differential has been a factor in the last two meetings. The Bengals won that battle, and the takeaways were crucial to their wins. They have a plus-six turnover margin this season, while Kansas City is at minus-3.
Pratt forced Kelce to fumble at the end of a catch, and recovered it, in the regular-season matchup in December to set up the game-winning drive for the Bengals.
In the AFC Championship last year, B.J. Hill intercepted Mahomes late in the third quarter to set up a game-tying drive as the Bengals rallied for an overtime win, and Vonn Bell had a pick in overtime to set up McPherson’s game-winning field goal.
“We’ve just got to lock in, do our job and create turnovers and we’ll be successful,” Pratt said.
Bengals at Chiefs, 6:30 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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