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AFC Championship Preview

These teams met at Paul Brown Stadium just four weeks ago and gave us one of the best games of the NFL season. The Chiefs threatened to run away with the game early, taking leads of 14-0 and 28-14, but a critical Von Bell pass breakup on a deep pass to Tyreek Hill took us into halftime with the Bengals still in the game and a 28-17 score.

The Bengals made some second-half adjustments and kept the Chiefs’ offense off the field, limiting the Chiefs to three drives and 3 points in the second half. The Bengals offense stayed on the field for 36 plays and scored 17 points, eventually coming away with a game-winning field goal as time expired after a slew of Chiefs defensive penalties in the end zone.

A year ago, we saw the Buccaneers make some second-half defensive adjustments in their regular-season matchup with the Chiefs. After allowing over 65 yards on 6 of the first 7 Chiefs drives, the Buccaneers held the KC offense to no points and just 71 total yards on the Chiefs’ final four drives. The adjustments carried over to the Super Bowl when the Bucs held the Chiefs out of the end zone for the entire game. Likewise, the Bengals found defensive success in the second half and will now have a chance to replicate it for the game’s duration.

While the Bengals offense has gotten a lot of credit, it has been their young linebackers; Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt, who have made the winning plays the last two weeks, coming up with game-changing interceptions in the closing moments. However, this week will be a little different. Patrick Mahomes is a different breed of the quarterback from Derek Carr and Ryan Tannehill. So these linebackers will now face their toughest test yet, simultaneously defending the legs of Mahomes while keeping eyes on Travis Kelce, who always finds the open space. The Bills have a pretty good linebacker core with Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, but both players looked lost trying to defend this Chiefs passing attack a week ago.

The Chiefs sacked Burrow 4 times in their earlier matchup, but they failed to cover or tackle the rookie of the year Jamarr Chase, who locked up the award when he beat the Chiefs for 266 yards and three touchdowns. On the one hand, you could look at the Chiefs defense who held Buffalo’s #1 wide receiver Stefon Diggs to just three catches for 7 yards a week ago and assume the Chiefs are adept at handling a #1 wide receiver. Or you could look at the very same Chiefs defense who allowed over 200 receiving yards and four touchdowns to the unsung Gabriel Davis and say they are prone to get violated. Chase is the best young wide receiver we have seen in some time, and there’s a good chance he gets loose again on this KC defense. And if it’s not Chase for the Bengals, Tee Higgins or Tyler Boyd should get heavily involved.

Joe Burrow does many things well, but handling pressure is not one. He got sacked the most of any quarterback in the regular season and took nine sacks a week ago in the divisional round. While his offensive line is poor, Burrow is taking a sack on over 30% of pressures, which ranks 30th in the NFL. Burrow was blitzed 125 times during the regular season and will likely see plenty of pressure on Sunday. Burrow must find a way to communicate with his offense in a deafening Arrowhead Stadium, identify blitzes pre-snap and get his group into the right looks. With enough time to throw, Burrow and Co. will have a chance to match the Chiefs in points, but Chris Jones will have an opportunity to be the ultimate disruptor come Sunday night. The Bengals had no answer for the interior pressure of Jeffrey Simmons a week ago, and Jones has the talent to create similar havoc.

This matchup represents an excellent opportunity for the Bengals because they have no expectations; they can play as free as they want. Spotrac projects the Bengals to have 56 million dollars in cap space next year, yet they are in the AFC championship game with a chance to go to the Super Bowl. So this game provides another opportunity for the Bengals to see how they match up with the AFC’s top dog before going into free agency with that 56 million dollars. The Bengals were savvy spenders a year ago, and win or lose; the Bengals will be impossible to ignore in the 2022 offseason and beyond.

Chiefs GM Brett Veach did a great job plugging the holes on this Chiefs roster that led to their downfall last year by turning the Chiefs’ top 3 draft selections into Orlando Brown, Creed Humphrey, and Nick Bolton. Brown and Humphrey have been outstanding on the offensive line, and Bolton is a promising young linebacker. The Chiefs’ defense isn’t outstanding, but they are very opportunistic and should look better this week if Tyrann Mathieu makes it back from his concussion.

The Chiefs are annually in “Super Bowl or bust” so long as they have Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce. They are the best team in the league, and it takes your best game to beat them, and even then, you can still lose. (Sorry, Josh Allen). When the Chiefs’ offense is clicking, there is no way to stop them. The Bengals have built a secondary out of cast-offs; Chidobie Awuzie, Mike Hilton, Eli Apple, and Vernon Hargreaves are all highly drafted players who failed to meet expectations in their original spot. They have found homes in Cincinnati where they have been able to fly under the radar and get out from under their predraft expectations, but now they must bring it on the biggest stage and against the baddest opponent.

In my opinion, the Bengals still have too many holes at cornerback and offensive line, and for now, Mahomes is still a good deal better than Joe Burrow. Unfortunately for the Bengals, Patrick Mahomes will not give the ball away the way Ryan Tannehill did, and KC will run away late in a game with lots and lots of points.

For the NFC Championship preview: Click here.

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