CINCINNATI — If any team wanted to prove the Cincinnati Bengals weren’t made for greatness in 2021, it was the Kansas City Chiefs.
Kansas City, led by star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, has played in its last three AFC championship games and continues to be considered one of the best teams in the NFL. On two separate occasions this past season, the Chiefs came close to knocking out the Bengals in high-stakes games.
Both times, Cincinnati buckled but never folded. In Week 17 and in the AFC Championship game, the Bengals came back from deficits and defeated Kansas City, the latter game sending the franchise to its first Super Bowl since 1989.
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In defeating Kansas City, Cincinnati did one of the most elusive things in the NFL. Since 2020, 10 teams have played Kansas City at least twice. The Bengals are the only franchise to remain undefeated. And the game has quietly turned into a budding rivalry as they prepare to face off this Sunday at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).
“They had a great history in November and December and won a lot of football games,” said Bengals coach Zac Taylor on Monday. “Our guys are up for the challenge and we’re excited about the opportunity.”
“All we needed was a spark”
When Cincinnati met Kansas City for the first time last season, the Bengals enjoyed a two-game winning streak in December. With a win, the Bengals were in position to win the AFC North and secure their first playoff spot since 2015.
That day, the Bengals relied on the combination that changed their season – quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
Chase set the franchise record for 266 receiving yards, with his biggest catch coming late in the third quarter with a third and 27 when Burrow — ahead of a seven-man stampede — found him on the sidelines.
The revenge match in the AFC championship game four weeks later followed a different script. Cincinnati’s pass protection had become a liability, giving up nine sacks in the AFC divisional playoff win over the Tennessee Titans.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals’ offense ran 12% more under center than in the first game against Kansas City. And running back Joe Mixon had more yards from scrimmage (115) than Chase (54).
At one point, Cincinnati was 21-3 down with less than two minutes to go before halftime before Samaje Perine ran back and provided the jerk. Perine caught a screen pass, missed a defender and scored on a 41-yard touchdown streak.
“It didn’t matter who it came from, all we needed was a spark,” Perine recalled to ESPN 10 months later. “As soon as we felt that spark, we went to the races.”
The key to both wins was stopping Mahomes.
In both games against Kansas City last season, the Bengals gave up touchdowns early and faced a huge deficit. On both occasions, Cincinnati held Mahomes without a touchdown after halftime.
The defensive game plans featured different strategies from defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. In the Week 17 game, Cincinnati played 73% of Mahomes’ dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Info Zone. Four weeks later, that number dropped to 52.2%.
“You have to try to unbalance him on the plate if you want to look at it as a baseball analogy,” Anarumo said. “Because if they see fastball and they get fastball, it goes a long way.”
Because Kansas City and Cincinnati were division winners in 2021, they were guaranteed a regular-season clash. The Bengals want to do something no team has done since 2019 – win three games against Mahomes.
In the week leading up to both clubs’ big game, Cincinnati downplayed history between the two teams.
“It’s two different seasons,” Taylor said. “At that point in the year we’re going to go through and be clear about how those games played out and what they did and they’re going to do the same things to us.”
Every quarterback also plays at a high level. Mahomes and Burrow are first and second in the NFL in passing touchdowns, respectively. This is the first time in the last 30 seasons that the league’s top two players in this category have met after week 13, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
While the bulk of the pre-game talks will focus on Mahomes and Burrow, Burrow pointed out that they will not play each other directly.
“That’s the way the media likes to spin it and it creates energy for the game and anticipation,” Burrow said. “Every quarterback goes up against defense, and when you have two quarterbacks like that, it’s great for the game and great for the fans to watch quality quarterbacks play.”
Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd compared the matchup to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
When asked which is which, Boyd pointed to the stat highlighting the split between teams as they near the end of 2022.
“Whoever has the most wins is there.”