3) Patrick Mahomes faces the biggest challenge of his career: It wasn’t that long ago that Mahomes was perched high above the other young quarterbacks in the league, all of whom aspired to the kind of success he immediately attained as a starter. Now he has more competition from his peers, and nobody has become more formidable than Burrow. Mahomes has faced the Bengals three times over the last two years and lost every game. The first loss, in Week 17 of the 2021 season, seemed mystifying. The second one, in last season’s AFC title game, was humbling. The third defeat, which came in Week 13 of this season, was revelatory. That loss told the world that Cincinnati wasn’t just on the same level as Kansas City — the Bengals actually were superior.
A fourth consecutive loss will only further strengthen the narrative that the kryptonite for Mahomes wears orange and black jerseys and resides in southern Ohio. This game is even more daunting because the Chiefs’ All-Pro quarterback is nursing a high ankle sprain that he sustained in Kansas City’s Divisional Round win over Jacksonville on Saturday. Mahomes valiantly played in the second half of that victory, all while limping noticeably at times. As much as he tried to sell the notion that he’ll be close to 100 percent when this AFC Championship Game kicks off, the reality is that high ankle sprains typically don’t heal that quickly for anybody. The Bengals have bamboozled Mahomes quite a bit lately. They’ll try to do it again while he’s likely to be less mobile than he’s ever been in his games against Cincinnati.
The Bengals saved conference championship weekend
Overreaction or reality: Reality
Let’s be honest. The NFL was salivating at the prospect of a neutral-site championship game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills. Having 50,000 sold tickets for Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta full of Chiefs and Bills fans could have set the stage for future neutral-site conference championship games, which would have happened if the Bills beat the Bengals.
The NFL will never get the beta test they wanted, thanks to Cincinnati trouncing Buffalo in Orchard Park. If the NFL ever goes to neutral-site conference championship games, the league will have no visual evidence of an actual game to make it happen.
Thank the Bengals for making that a reality. The world will never know what a neutral-site championship game will look like.
Kansas City already was one of the league’s worst teams on third-and-short, and those conversions will be an even bigger concern now. Mahomes isn’t used on sneaks, but the Chiefs literally began this game with a speed option between him and Pacheco, a concept Reid has pulled out in short-yardage situations before. Mahomes’ prior postseason injury — a concussion suffered against the Browns in the 2020 playoffs — also came on a third-and-1 speed option. If Mahomes isn’t mobile enough to boot or run play-action, defenses will find it much easier to key on what this offense is doing.
On the other hand, Kansas City has the league’s best offense at managing third-and-long, converting a staggering 47.6% of the time in the 8-to-12-yard range this season. The league average this season was 27.6%, and just three offenses over the previous 15 years had a better percentage. Mahomes’ ability to scramble and extend plays helped key that success; he averaged a league-high 3.7 seconds before passing in those situations. If he isn’t able to do that, the Chiefs might be compromised on both third-and-short and third-and-long.
Andy Reid loses timeout over unnecessary challenge
Facing second-and-seven from their own 23 with 7:48 remaining in the third quarter, Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco caught a swing pass toward the left sideline from Mahomes and gained six yards, getting marked just short of the line to gain for a first down. Reid decided that instead of facing third-and-inches, having two plays to get just under a yard, he would rather have the first down immediately.
With the call on the field being short of a first down, Reid needed indisputable video evidence to win the challenge, something that didn’t happen, so Kansas City lost a timeout and a challenge early into the final 30 minutes of action. The Chiefs then opted to run a direct snap to tight end Noah Gray in order to pick up the first down that was stuffed by the Jaguars defensive line. Kansas City then punted since it was already backed up in its own end of the field. That sequence marked a few poor coaching decisions in terms of play-calling and timeout usage that didn’t end up hurting Chiefs this week, but that type of sequence could come back to burn them against the Bengals, the team that ended their season a year ago in the AFC Championship.
The Chiefs taught us … that you don’t need to throw downfield to be explosive.
The temptation to launch the ball to Hill at every opportunity probably had something to do with the issues Mahomes faced last season, when seemingly every opposing defense majored in two-high coverages and tried to take away the deep areas of the field. At times Mahomes looked uncomfortable with or straight-up uninterested in taking what the defense gave him, and it eventually led to his team’s demise in the AFC title game. In that game, Anarumo forced Mahomes to be a patient pocket passer who was either throwing into a tight window in the intermediate area or checking it down and hoping to keep the offense on schedule. Mahomes got a bit too aggressive—and Andy Reid seemingly forgot he was allowed to call a run play—and the opportunistic Bengals defense capitalized on those mistakes.
That loss must have stuck with Mahomes all offseason, because we saw a new version of the QB emerge in 2022. This Mahomes is still fully capable of making the most absurd play you’ve ever seen—how about a jump pass from the tightest of pockets?—but now he rarely makes mistakes on the downs in between. Mahomes isn’t just throwing more checkdowns; he’s throwing more short passes in general. He’s processing and getting rid of the ball faster, and he has replaced a lot of those downfield heaves to Hill with more sensible passes to Travis Kelce, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Kadarius Toney. And none of that has affected Mahomes’s stat line in the slightest. He’s still producing at the highest of levels—he’s just finding that production in other areas of the field.
3: Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have the best offense left in the postseason, but their quarterback has an ankle injury. Mahomes injured his ankle late in the first quarter against Jacksonville, then sat out the second quarter before playing the entire second half. He looked off in the third quarter but played well considering his limitations in the fourth. He’s going to play against the Bengals, but how healthy will he be?
Can the Chiefs offense solve the Bengals defense, which seem to cast a spell on the high-powered group, shutting them down with a variety of coverages and quality pass-rushing?
The Chiefs defense has played better of late, with their younger secondary players starting to show some skills as they gain experience. However, their inability to generate pressure with four pass-rushers has me worried against the Bengals. Sitting in zone and not allowing the big play can work for a while, but unless you force negative plays, Burrow will just take the easy yards to keep his offense moving.
On top of that, the Chiefs special teams are not special. They are ranked 32nd for a reason. They gave Jacksonville short fields multiple times and that’s a brutal formula against the Bengals.
Lastly, the Bengals have the Chiefs’ number. I cannot rank Kansas City ahead of Cincinnati until the Chiefs beat this iteration of the Bengals.
Around the NFL
Allen said Monday that the discomfort associated with the ailment followed a similar progression, explaining he felt he was possibly “trying to throw it a little differently mechanically” until a couple of weeks ago. Most importantly, it appears he won’t need offseason surgery to address the issue.
“We don’t think an operation is necessary at this time. Obviously rest and recovery is going to be really good for it,” Allen said, via the team’s official site.
Pollard suffered the injury with 1:24 left in the first half of the Cowboys’ 19-12 divisional round loss to the San Francisco 49ers when he was rolled up after an 8-yard catch. Pollard needed help to the sideline and was wearing an Aircast on his left leg as he was carted to the X-ray room inside Levi’s Stadium. He was subsequently ruled out for the game.
“That hurt,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said. “Just a guy that brings so much to our offense, brings so much to our team. His energy. His energy on the sideline, in the huddle, the way he gets guys going. He’s a special teammate, special player and obviously that one hurt. It hurt us. Wasn’t able to create as many explosive plays as we planned, and I’m sure he would’ve been a big part of some of those had he not gotten hurt.”
In case you missed it on Arrowhead Pride
Sure… there is still at least one game left to be played — but for the Chiefs, 2022 was about much more than postseason wins. Let’s remember what it was like last March, when so many were counting Kansas City out after the team traded wide receiver Tyreek Hill, allowed cornerback Charvarius Ward and safety Tyrann Matheiu to walk to free agency and watched the AFC’s arms race from the sidelines.
The Chiefs stood their ground with Hill, exchanging him for a bag full of draft picks. They chose not to spend big money in free agency — which would have required converting some of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ 2022 roster bonus to signing bonus to make cap room — which gave them more freedom down the road. Instead, they made several small moves in free agency — and then focused on the draft. General manager Brett Veach used his picks well, getting a tremendous contribution from the team’s rookie class.
And even with all this, the team continued to be among the NFL’s best.
If anyone needs a graphical representation of how well the Tyreek Hill worked out for the Chiefs, show them this. @ericeager_ was right about this from the get-go (as he is with most things) pic.twitter.com/6D9lsIBsVj
— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) January 10, 2023
A tweet to make you think
I’m about to leave Buffalo and my pilot just got on the intercom and said
“To the Bengals fans good luck next week and please for the love of God beat Patrick Mahomes.”
— Bridget Condon (@BridgetCondon_) January 23, 2023