Analysis: 3 takeaways from Bengals’ AFC championship loss

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he doesn’t need time to process what this season meant for his team because he knows how special it was. It just ended one game too soon.

Harrison Butker’s 45-yard field goal with three seconds left broke a 13-minute stalemate and gave the Kansas City Chiefs a 23-20 win Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, denying the Bengals their second straight AFC championship and chance to claim the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.

The Bengals won 10 straight games to make a return to the conference championship and had beaten the Chiefs three times in the last 13 months, but just couldn’t quite complete the kind of comeback that got them to a Super Bowl last year.

After trailing by 10 in the second quarter, they tied the game twice in the second half, and Joe Burrow had the ball in his hands for two drives in the final nine-plus minutes, but Cincinnati never was able to take a lead. Joseph Ossai’s late hit on Patrick Mahomes moved Kansas City into field goal range with eight seconds left.

“Our goal was to win the Super Bowl, so to be seconds away from being back there and watching them celebrate, it’s horrible because this team has invested so much in each other to get to this point,” Taylor said. “We’ve been playing playoff football since (after) Halloween, and we just didn’t know it. We had to win the 10 games to be here. Just really proud of the way the guys show up and are so consistent every single day, the way they fought to the final whistle today. It’s hard to find anything you wouldn’t like about this football team.”

Here are three takeaways from the game:

1. Burrow faced too much pressure

After the offensive line -- with three backups starting -- stepped up last week to give Burrow and the offense plenty of time and space to operate, that wasn’t the case Sunday.

Burrow was sacked five times, and Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones made things especially difficult for the offense to do what it needed to do to win the game. Jones recorded two sacks and three tackles for loss, and Kansas City’s defensive line especially made Burrow look uncomfortable the first two drives of the game, when the Bengals managed one first down and had minus-10 net yards and three of the five sacks.

Jones sacked Burrow for a seven-yard loss on the last offensive play for the Bengals before punting away to Kansas City for the final drive.

“We let him get loose a few too many times,” center Ted Karras said. “I thought we settled down, though, after the first quarter. They had a good scheme, credit to them. I thought we kept him at bay enough to have a chance to win. Ultimately did not.

“He’s a dynamic player, and you have to shut those guys down to beat this team,” he added. “I didn’t think we did that overall as good as we wanted to coming in.”

It wasn’t a great day for the offensive line, overall. Hakeem Adeniji had a false start on the first drive before Burrow’s first sack, and Cordell Volson’s holding penalty negated a 19-yard pass to Ja’Marr Chase on a third down conversion in the third quarter with Kansas City leading 20-13.

Burrow faced so much pressure on the last possession, he was called for intentional grounding trying to avoid taking a loss on second-and-7, and Jones’ last sack killed what otherwise could have been the game-winning drive for Cincinnati.

2. Penalties hurt

Ossai’s shove on Mahomes as he was going out of bounds at the end of a 9-yard scramble was the dagger, but Taylor and several players said it wasn’t the only play that impacted the result.

“It’s a tough situation,” safety Vonn Bell said. “We can’t just blame it on him. D-lineman, you know he was trying to make a play, chasing the quarterback, pursuit. We all here for him. It’s not on him. We are a collective unit.”

Ossai said he saw Mahomes going to the sideline and he was in full “chase mode” just trying to knock him back to keep the clock running.

The majority of Ossai’s teammates tried after the game to shield the blame from him, but not everyone was so supportive. Linebacker Germaine Pratt was caught on film coming through the tunnel toward the locker room yelling, “This my last year....Why the (expletive) you touching the quarterback?”

There were a number of other penalties, including those ones on the offensive line, that played a factor as well. Eli Apple had a defensive holding penalty that took away a sack by B.J. Hill in the fourth quarter, and although the Chiefs still ended up punting that drive, Cincinnati’s field position was hurt by the additional 14 yards they managed.

Burrow took a delay of game penalty on the first drive, as noise seemed to be playing a factor in his ability to communicate.

3. Defense kept Bengals in it

Kansas City won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, giving the Bengals exactly what they wanted in having a chance to attack from the get-go. Their inability to move the ball the first two drives prevented them from being able to take advantage and set the tone early.

Even facing the league’s top passer, the Bengals defense did a decent job keeping them in the game, though. Mahomes had no trouble moving the ball on the first two drives but the Chiefs still had to settle for field goals, when they easily could have been up 14-0.

Kadarius Toney lost control of a third-down pass from Mahomes when he hit the ground in the end zone, forcing the Chiefs to settle for a 43-yard field goal from Butker on their first possession. On their next drive, Isiah Pacheco dashed into the end zone on second-and-goal from the 9-yard line but the touchdown was nullified by a hold and again the Cincinnati defense limited them to a field goal, this time a 24-yarder.

In the second half, Sam Hubbard recovered a fumble by Mahomes to set up a touchdown drive that tied the game at 20. Burrow’s two interceptions didn’t lead to points for Kansas City but hurt the offense’s ability to do more. He finished with 270 yards and an incredible touchdown pass to Tee Higgins. Mahomes, who was sacked three times, finished with 326 yards and two touchdowns even while losing four of his receivers during the game. Kelce, who was questionable with back spasms, recorded seven catches for 78 yards and a 16-yard touchdown. Still, the Bengals held the Chiefs to their fourth lowest point total of the season.

“They are awesome,” Taylor said. “Our defense is outstanding, to a man, to a coach. Really proud of those guys. They are so dependable, and they gave us a great chance today.”

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