Bengals at Chiefs: Breaking down Burrow-Mahomes match up; other storylines to watch in today’s game

After the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 17, Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes met briefly on the field to exchange well-wishes. Asked about their conversation, Burrow said in his postgame press conference Mahomes told him “See y’all in the playoffs.”

Four weeks later, the stage is set for that rematch Sunday in the AFC Championship, and the Bengals aren’t under any illusion they will be able to easily repeat their success from Jan. 2. Kansas City, winners of a Super Bowl two years ago, has won the last two conference finals and is playing in its fourth straight AFC Championship.

“If you want to do the things that we want to do, that’s a team that you’re going to have to beat every single year,” Burrow said. “The AFC has run through them for four straight years.”

The Bengals are appearing in their first conference championship since the 1988 playoffs.

Here are five storylines to watch Sunday:

1. Top-tier quarterbacks

Burrow vs. Mahomes lived up to the hype the first time around, and after the showdown between the Bills and Chiefs last week, this one is destined to be another intriguing quarterback battle.

Mahomes went to an AFC Championship in his first season as a starter in 2018, second season in the league, and he is now leading the Chiefs to a fourth straight title game after throwing for 778 yards combined the last two weeks. Burrow, in his second season but first complete one, has carried the Bengals to their first playoff wins since 1991 but will be looking to get the offense back to more of its Week 16-17 pace when he threw for 971 yards and eight touchdowns combined in the AFC North title-clinching games.

“(It will take being) near perfect,” Burrow said. “I think every week of the playoffs has proven that. It goes through Kansas City, and Patrick Mahomes has been near-perfect for four years, however many years he’s been starting. So that’s what it’s gonna take for me. It’s not just a quarterback-driven game. It’s a team game, but I think wins and losses usually come down to how each quarterback plays.”

A fast start could be key. The Bengals were able to rally in the first meeting after falling behind by 14 three times, but Mahomes is capable of running away with a game.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Zac Taylor talks Joe Burrow's recovery in the offseason

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

2. Protection is key

While being sacked nine times last week at Tennessee, Burrow needed to rely on his defense and special teams to step up when the offense couldn’t get into a rhythm, but it’s not something the Bengals can count on overcoming again.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Burrow is the sixth player to enter a conference championship with 50-plus sacks, and his 62 are easily the most. The previous five quarterbacks all failed to reach the Super Bowl, and four of them saw their teams fail to score an offensive touchdown in that conference title game.

“You try to fix the things that are easily fixable,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “Is it just a really good player playing really well? It’s hard to fix those. But the communication ones are the most important, things you can fix. With Joe, you’re always going to be mindful of the fact that he can make people miss and sometimes he does and he gets out clean and there’s huge plays down the field. That’s part of his play style. Certainly, we would like to see every now and again if he really feels like he can’t get out of it to just throw one away and save a sack. But, that’s how we’re gonna play and that’s how we’re gonna win. Joe’s gonna be who he is. There’s no changing that right now. At some point in his career he’ll get tired of taking some of those hits and he’ll throw it away. But as of right now that’s what makes him special and we’re not gonna try to take that away from him. Obviously I think he can make most of those plays when he’s out there, so we’re just gonna let him play football.”

Burrow is special in that he also is just the fifth player in the last 30 seasons to enter the conference championship while leading the NFL in both completion percentage and yards per attempt. The Bengals would benefit from giving him more opportunities to complete those passes with a clean pocket. Kansas City was among the bottom four in the league with 31 sacks this season, but the Chiefs got to Burrow for four sacks in Week 17 and Chris Jones had two of those.

3. Keep the takeaways coming

The Bengals had five takeaways combined in the first two playoff games, including interceptions on the final defensive play of both, but they didn’t get any against Kansas City in the first matchup.

Taylor said winning the turnover battle has been the key to the team’s success over the last six weeks while the offense went without a miscue in five of those. That could play a big role Sunday if the Bengals can get an advantage in that aspect of the game.

“We’ve been best in the league recently at that,” Taylor said. “And as something we’ve hammered all season obviously, but I think it’s no secret when you’ve got more possessions than the other team, you’re taking away red zone opportunities like we did last week from Tennessee, then we’re giving ourselves a better opportunity to win the game. And we feel like we’ve got a good enough team that if we’re going to steal possessions, we can take control of the game.”

4. There’s always “Shooter”

Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase stole the headlines the last game against Kansas City -- when Chase caught 266 yards and three touchdowns as part of Burrow’s 446 yards passing and four touchdowns -- even though rookie kicker Evan McPherson won it with a 20-yard field goal as time expired.

Cincinnati doesn’t take for granted how reliable McPherson has been, and he’s certainly proved to be a weapon that was worth a fifth-round draft pick. He has four game-winning field goals as time expired and all were in spotlight games (the opener, a Thursday Night game, the AFC North-clinching game and the divisional playoff last week).

In the past, the Bengals didn’t have enough confidence in their kicker to attempt some of the kicks McPherson has made. He’s 9-for-11 from 50 yards or more this year and two of his four makes last week were in that range.

“We wanted to up the ante a little bit knowing we had a quarterback who was probably going to get us in position to score a lot points,” special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said when asked if he had to lobby to draft McPherson. “Having a good solid kicker, someone you could count on in tight spots like this is a huge, huge deal for us, and like I said before, he really fulfilled all these roles for us.”

5. Contain the Chiefs’ speed

Bengals safety Vonn Bell guessed the Chiefs might be the fastest team in the league, especially with wide receiver Tyreek Hill but also Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle.

Cincinnati also will have to be ready for a stronger running game this time with Clyde Edwards-Helaire back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the final games of the regular season, but the big-play potential can be worrisome. The Bengals held Hill to 40 yards last time; however, he had 150 yards against the top defense in the league last week.

“It brings a lot of problems, because it stretches you vertically,” Bell said. “You want to take away these vertical threats and everything underneath you got (Jerick) McKinnon, you got 25 (Edwards-Helaire) back, you got Travis (Kelce) sitting underneath in the soft of the zone because everybody is back deep. He’s just by himself and that’s how they create explosives within the play. You’ve got to respect the speed because it’s like a roadrunner as we call them, they just keep on rolling. You’ve got to respect it. That’s why this team is so dynamic.”

TODAY’S GAME

Bengals at Chiefs, 3 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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