Looking ahead to Conference Championship Sunday, we're going to look at what will make the difference in who represents the AFC and NFC in the Super Bowl. Make sure you check out our previews for the games, as well, starting with the AFC.
When the Cincinnati Bengals made their improbable run to the AFC Championship Game last year, it was absolutely a "happy to be here moment."
It was the most playoff success they had tasted in three decades. Leading the way was a second-year quarterback with all the talent in the world to be one of the next-best quarterbacks to ever play the game.
And yet, to no one's surprise, the Bengals were heavy underdogs against the Kansas City Chiefs, facing the best quarterback and best player in the league. It was seemingly, allegedly, supposed to be a free pass to the Super Bowl once again for the Chiefs. But there was just one problem: The Bengals were playing with house money.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals' defense engineered an incredible comeback the likes of which we've never seen, and Cincinnati went on to rally from down 21-3 to win 27-24 in overtime and advance to the Super Bowl. Of course, the Bengals lost the Super Bowl to the Los Angeles Rams, but that game provided one very important fact: The Bengals arrived sooner than expected.
And this year showed that this was no fluke.
The Bengals are back in the title picture, against the Chiefs — in Kansas City — with a berth in a second straight Super Bowl up for grabs on Sunday. This time, the Bengals are not just happy to be here. They have the ability to beat the Chiefs for a fourth straight time, second straight time in the AFC title game in Kansas City, and have a legitimate chance to go to Glendale in two weeks and win their first Super Bowl.
“We’re a more complete team and a better team,” Burrow said. “We just seem to make plays when it counts.”
The Bengals sent a statement in their 27-10 win over the Buffalo Bills in snowy New York. Burrow didn't turn the ball over, they got a great balance from Joe Mixon, and the defense stifled Buffalo's offense from getting out of the gates. Much like what happened in the second half in Kansas City last year.
And the Chiefs also made a statement that Patrick Mahomes can win a game on one leg. The predicted MVP of the league this year hobbled his way to a 27-20 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars and made enough plays to make it to a fifth straight conference title game. As of this writing, the Chiefs have gotten an extra half-point on the books and are now favored by 1.5.
What's going to determine this game? We'll break it down in three parts.
1) Burrow vs. Mahomes — Health and mistakes
Any other time when there's a high-ankle sprain involved, there's no reason to put extra money on the favorite. But Patrick Mahomes isn't any ordinary human. He willed his way to a win over Jacksonville after suffering that first-quarter high-ankle sprain, but still threw for 195 yards and two touchdowns for the win.
But not to fear, in the eyes and ears of the Chiefs' contingent. Mahomes is going to play Sunday and will be a full-go. How much that ankle impacts him as the game goes on will be the question.
“When we get to that Wednesday practice we’ll see where we’re at,” Reid said. “I’ve got to see how he feels.”
Even if not immediately, Mahomes' mobility is going to be impacted. The Cincinnati defense got to Mahomes twice and hit him eight times in the 27-24 Bengals win on Dec. 4. That was with a fully-intact Mahomes. Him on one leg will not be the easiest transition, even if he has the home crowd behind him.
For Burrow, this is the moment he thrives for. He was calm and collected last year, and he has been again this year. But with the experience he had last year, we need to start putting him in the upper echelon of those at his position.
Burrow wins games. He knows what to look for, no matter the elements. If not for him winning in Kansas City last year, it would not be this simple to think he could do it again. Burrow outplayed Mahomes that night, throwing for 286 yards and two touchdowns. He even ran for 46 yards. For those who don't think he can run, try again.
2) Kelce vs. Chase — Who makes the game-breaking plays?
The best tight end in the game against one of the best young receivers in the game. They're going to get their touches, because the law of averages dictates that they will.
Travis Kelce had a record-breaking season, while Ja'Marr Chase missed some games but is still capable of being a force on the outside.
The Bengals' wide receiver had seven catches for 97 yards in the December meeting at home. That was Chase's first game since returning to the lineup after missing six weeks due to injury. Since Chase has returned, he's caught five touchdowns on 54 receptions, which is somewhat a better ratio than what he had at the beginning of the season.
Kelce, meanwhile, has just been a god of a tight end all year. In the final 13 games of the regular season, He caught 84 passes for 1,016 yards and nine touchdowns. Tack on the 14 receptions for 98 yards and two scores he had against Jacksonville, it's insane what he's been able to do.
The eyes will be on the quarterbacks, but also on who they will be throwing to.
3) Zac Taylor vs. Andy Reid
The young offensive guru has gotten the best of Reid. But does the veteran, Super Bowl-winning coach have one more trick up his sleeve to ensure his group gets back to another Super Bowl?
The Bengals' defense has proven to be the better unit, and that's where Reid is going to have to be at his best. That unit has to find a way to control Burrow and the passing game. Taylor has not only transitioned into what his offense can be, but has found the right buttons to push come defensively. Trey Hendrickson is one of the best pass rushers in the game, and he's going to wreak havoc on the Kansas City backfield.
Chris Jones, anyone, make some plays, or Burrow will pick you apart.