Only one quarterback in the NFL has three consecutive wins against Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and he’ll have the striped orange helmet in the AFC championship game in Kansas City on Sunday night.
Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals (14-4) can return to the Super Bowl by eliminating Mahomes and the Chiefs (15-3) in the conference title game for the second year in a row.
“Last time we played him, he didn’t make a mistake all game,” Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton said Wednesday of Burrow.
That last time was Dec. 4, a 27-24 win for the host Bengals that was near the middle of the team’s current 10-game winning streak.
Cincinnati’s most recent loss was to Cleveland on Halloween. Burrow would tie Russell Wilson for most wins (six) by a quarterback in their first three seasons if he can knock off the Chiefs again.
“He’s got an edge to him,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Burrow. “I like that in our quarterback.”
He hasn’t been intercepted in his past three playoff games. In three starts against the Chiefs, Burrow has nine TDs (one rushing), one interception and a combined passer rating of 121.
“They know us, we know them,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
A takeaway on a fumble by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce turned the game at Cincinnati at December in the fourth quarter, and kicker Harrison Butker missed a 55-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.
Mahomes will start his fifth conference championship game. His overall playoff record is 9-3, and he has 32 touchdowns (28 TD passes, four rushing) and three interceptions in 10 career home playoff starts.
But Mahomes is dealing with a sprain of his upper right ankle. The initial sprain forced him out of the Chiefs’ divisional playoff win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last week. He returned to the game with limited mobility, completing 22 of 30 passes for a season-low 195 yards with two touchdowns and was not sacked.
Mahomes was a full practice participant Thursday and said how much progress he makes during the rest of the week will be key.
“We’ll see as we get closer and closer and we’ll see during the game,” Mahomes said. “You can’t fully do exactly what you’re going to be in those moments in the game but all I can do is prepare myself the best way possible.”
The expectation from the Chiefs is more shotgun formation and the max-protection looks Kansas City showed in the second half of the divisional playoffs.
If he’s operating within a designed barricade in the pocket this week, the Chiefs know the drill. Even though Kansas City leads the NFL with pass attempts on the move, Mahomes also had an NFL-best 34 TD passes from the pocket (41 total TD passes).
“They’re just a physical team. They play physical, from start to finish, all four quarters,” Chiefs wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said.
From Mahomes’ view behind center, he said the challenge of solving the Bengals’ defense is its ever-changing approach. In the AFC championship game last season, ends Sam Hubbard (two sacks and a forced fumble) and Trey Hendrickson (1.5 sacks) were unblockable at times.
To beat the Buffalo Bills last week, the Bengals used 10 designed cornerback blitzes, a look Mahomes said was rarely seen this season.
“They have no weakness,” Mahomes said.
As for the Bengals offense, even with three starters on the offensive line out with injuries at Buffalo last week, Burrow was rarely pressured. Still, protection could be a problem for the Bengals if left tackle Jonah Williams (knee) and right guard Alex Cappa (ankle) are out again. Neither practiced Wednesday or Thursday. Right tackle La’el Collins (knee) is done for the season.
In addition, tight end Hayden Hurst (calf) was added to Cincinnati’s injury report Thursday.
Taylor pointed out that the Bengals leaned on running back Joe Mixon heavily against Buffalo (105 rushing yards) to get their replacement linemen comfortable. That approach also has worked against the Chiefs: Kansas City runs nickel or dime base defense more than only four other teams in 2022.
“We can’t let Joe Burrow sit in the pocket and get rhythm throws. We have to force him out of the pocket,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. “We’re not gonna win the game if we don’t get sacks or turnovers.”
Wide receiver Mecole Hardman (pelvis) returned to practice — he had been limited the past two days — but Reid said the Chiefs will continue to monitor him closely. Hardman didn’t play against the Jaguars and has been sidelined since Nov. 6.
The Chiefs aren’t expecting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle) to be activated from injured reserve though Reid allowed there was a chance. He has missed the past eight games.
If Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo shifts gears from a tendency to rush four, Burrow’s options in the passing game are led by wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase (513 career postseason receiving yards) and Tee Higgins (103 yards in last year’s AFC championship game).
Andy Reid is seeking his third Super Bowl appearance in four seasons and could find his former employer, the Philadelphia Eagles, on the other sideline in Arizona on Feb. 12. A Bengals’ win on Sunday would make Taylor the third head coach in NFL history to appear in two Super Bowls in his first four seasons.
–Field Level Media
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