KANSAS CITY, Mo. (WCMH) — A trip to the Super Bowl is up for grabs when the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday at 3:05 p.m.
The Bengals beat the Chiefs 34-31 in week 17 to secure the AFC North on a game-ending 20-yard field goal from Evan McPherson. The rookie kicker went 4-for-4 last week against the Tennessee Titans, including the winning 52-yard field goal as time expired.
Despite the win over Kansas City, the Bengals enter the game as seven-point underdogs.
“I don’t really feel like there’s a person in this locker room that doesn’t believe we can win this game,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “I know that the belief in this locker room is everyone is going to go out there, play their best and have no question in their mind that we have an ability to win this game.”
Below are three keys to the Bengals pulling off the upset and securing a spot in the Super Bowl.
Keep Burrow upright
Burrow was sacked four times in the Bengals’ win over Kansas City on Jan. 2, and pass-blocking has been a problem all season for the Bengals, who allow the third-most sacks in the NFL. Their struggles were made clear last week after allowing nine sacks, tying a playoff record.
“There’s a lot of things that play into it starting with me putting our guys in the best position to block the other team,” coach Zac Taylor said. “Some games it’s great, some games we’re going to need to improve, and certainly we’ve put a lot of time and effort into making sure we can have the cleanest pocket possible for Joe on Sunday.”
Cincinnati actually blocked pretty well in its first meeting with the Chiefs despite the four sacks. Only one player, Chris Jones, had a win rate above 6.5%, per Pro Football Focus. If the Bengals can manage to do that again, they’ll give Burrow another chance to torch the secondary.
Exploit Chiefs’ secondary
Burrow embarrassed the Kansas City defense to the tune of 446 yards passing and four touchdowns in week 17. Three of those scores went to rookie Ja’Marr Chase, who gained 266 yards on 11 catches, which is not an anomaly for the Chiefs, who just gave up four touchdowns and 201 yards to Buffalo receiver Gabriel Davis last week.
The Chiefs decided to guard Chase one-on-one in the first meeting, so keep an eye out to see if they take that kind of risk again.
The Chiefs have the sixth-worst pass defense in the NFL, but they’ll likely get safety Tyrann Mathieu back after he suffered a concussion in the first quarter last week. If Kansas City can’t get a significant amount of pressure on Burrow, the Bengals offense could, and should, have a field day.
Win on turnovers
Winning on turnovers is the main reason the Bengals are playing for the AFC championship. In the playoffs, their defense has forced six turnovers while the offense has only committed one turnover on a controversial, and remarkable, interception by the Titans.
After giving up 28 points to the Chiefs in the first half of week 17, the Bengals bottled Patrick Mahomes & Co. up by holding Kansas City to one field goal in the final 30 minutes.
The defense followed that performance up with two more solid games against the Raiders and Titans in which they forced a combined six turnovers, including two, late fourth-quarter picks to seal the win (Raiders) and lead to the winning drive (Titans).
“We’ve been best in the league recently at [forcing turnovers] and that’s something we’ve hammered all season,” Taylor said. “[When] 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. We feel like we’ve got a good enough team that we’re going to steal possessions and we can take control of the game.”
Part of that confidence comes from defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo who captain Vonn Bell says continuously puts the defense in the best position to win each play.
“He’s a scientist, always has a method, always trying to put us in a position to make plays and take away their strengths,” Bell said. “He always has some formula in his head and we try to diagnose it throughout the week and make it easier for us to play faster … hats off to him always putting us in a position to make plays.”