A victorious Joe Burrow walked across the field earlier this month to smack palms with Patrick Mahomes, and the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback offered five prophetic words that made Burrow smile.
“See you in the playoffs.”
Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals (12-7) hit the road for the AFC Championship game on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium with Mahomes and the Chiefs (14-5) riding high following a 42-36 overtime win over the Buffalo Bills in the divisional playoffs.
“We play really good on the road,” a red-nosed Burrow, replete with stocking cap and sweatshirt, said before Wednesday’s frigid practice of the team’s 6-3 road record this season. “You want to get out to a strong start. You can’t let a team like this get out in front of you. They put a lot of pressure on you on defense.”
Cincinnati has the only win over the Chiefs since Oct. 24 and Burrow passed for 446 yards and four scores. He was sacked four times.
“These young quarterbacks are great for this league and he’s one of them,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said of Burrow. “He’s a heckuva football player. He does a nice job. He’s a coach’s kid that knows the game and kind of gets it.”
Perhaps the biggest health concern on either team is Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu. He missed practice Wednesday and remains in concussion protocol, but Reid said there’s a chance he’ll be on the field Thursday.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said the Bengals plan to spend “a lot of time” working on protection of Burrow. He was hit 13 times at Tennessee and sacked five times in the first half alone. Taylor said noise at Arrowhead comes with the territory, and the peripheral complications — silent counts, Burrow calling plays due to headset challenges — aren’t easy to replicate in practice.
“Arrowhead is pretty loud,” Mahomes said. “I don’t think you can get around that. I’m sure it’ll be pretty loud this weekend. They’re coming in trying to win a big football game. But I’m glad we’re at Arrowhead and we’re able to use our crowd to our advantage in trying to get a win.”
Burrow offers mostly a pained smirk when the prospect of being cast as the underdog bubbles up again for the Bengals. The Jan. 2 win over Kansas City has been a confidence-building rallying cry since the 34-31 win in Ohio. Rookie first-round pick Ja’Marr Chase was fourth in the NFL with 1,455 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Chase set career bests with 11 receptions for 266 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas City in the Week 17 clash.
Chase said he “didn’t watch” last week’s game to study how the Chiefs handled Gabriel Davis of the Bills, who exploded for 201 yards and four TDs, while Buffalo’s No. 1 receiver Stefon Diggs had three catches for seven yards plus a two-point conversion pass.
“They’re a great defense, they’re a great secondary,” Chase said Wednesday.
But familiarity is a two-way street. Mahomes gets another look at the Bengals defense, too, playing in his fourth straight conference title game. He’s 8-2 in the playoffs with 25 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“It’s hard to beat a team twice,” Bengals safety Vonn Bell said. “Especially that caliber, those guys are always in the postseason, the Super Bowl. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
A win would put the Bengals in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1988 (SB XXIII). Kansas City is the first team to host four consecutive NFL conference championship games. A Chiefs’ victory puts the franchise in elite company with three others who have played in three consecutive Super Bowls (Miami Dolphins, 1971-73), Buffalo Bills (1990-93) and New England Patriots (2016-18).
“I’ve been in some of these situations before, I’ve been in some big games … I know what it takes to go out there and find a way to win,” Mahomes said. “I think preparation and experience helps me in those situations.”
In his playoff career, including LSU, Burrow is 6-0 with a 69.7 completion percentage, 22 touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s 2-0 in the NFL playoffs, beating the Raiders and Titans despite being sacked 11 times this postseason. He’s the first No. 1 overall draft pick to start in a conference championship game within his first two seasons.
–Field Level Media
Joe Burrow took a beating at Tennessee on Saturday. He was still smiling when the Bengals landed in Cincinnati with a victory in the divisional playoffs over the No. 1-seeded Titans.
“As of right now, that’s what makes him special. And we’re not going to take that away from him,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said of Burrow’s bravado in the pocket bringing big plays at the risk of his own well-being.
A trip to Kansas City for the AFC Championship awaits, and the Bengals are decided underdogs. Burrow was sacked nine times by the Titans and knows the Chiefs well from their Jan. 2 visit from the reigning AFC champs, a 34-31 decision in which Burrow passed for 446 yards and four touchdowns. He was sacked four times.
“I do like the idea of having Joe playing a team the second time around,” Callahan said Monday. “He knows the technique, the players, the strengths and the weaknesses. It’s like a division game for us.”
Burrow has been sacked multiple times in every game since Halloween and has gone down in the arms of defenders 62 times this season, including the playoffs.
Callahan said Burrow is as close to unflappable as it gets at the position, emphatically bouncing back to his feet to let defenders and teammates know he’s back for more. His focus and leadership are behind the Bengals’ renaissance as far as Callahan is concerned.
“He’s never satisfied. He wants to win championships,” he said.
If there was any doubt about whether a second shootout this month with the Chiefs was in store Sunday, it was erased in the divisional playoff finale when the Chiefs won a 42-36 thriller over the Buffalo Bills in overtime. Kansas City is 11-1 since Oct. 24, with the Bengals responsible for the lone blemish.
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said he settled his heartburn Saturday against the Titans and chose to dwell on the relief that he didn’t have to stop Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes this week.
“I knew we didn’t have to play both of them,” Anarumo said, allowing Kansas City put up 42 points for the second consecutive playoff game. “We can’t allow them to score touchdowns — hold them to field goals.”
And if it comes down to kicks, the Bengals are ever confident in rookie kicker Evan McPherson, who drilled a 52-yard field goal in walk-off fashion on the road last week to sink the Titans.
“Some guys handle those things different than others. It’s part of their mental makeup,” said Darrin Simmons, assistant head coach and special teams coordinator. “How do they compartmentalize that and handle that stress and pressure? It is pretty rare, especially for a young guy like that. He’ll be a good one here for a long time.”
–Field Level Media
The good news for the Kansas City Chiefs is that Patrick Mahomes is practicing.
However, Mahomes remained in concussion protocol as preparations began in earnest for Sunday’s AFC Championship game pitting the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs against the Buffalo Bills at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
“(Mahomes) took all the snaps and he feels good, so we’re just going to follow this protocol as close as we possibly can,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid told reporters Wednesday.
Last year’s Super Bowl MVP suffered an injury in the third quarter of Kansas City’s divisional round game against Cleveland and did not return. Backup Chad Henne and the Chiefs defense held on for a victory, in part because Henne scrambled for a big gain and then converted a game-clinching first down with a surprising completion to Tyreek Hill.
“For my preparation, it’s going to stay the same: Prepare like you’re the starter each and every week, no matter what happens,” Henne said. “Whatever does happen, happens. I always stay ready.”
Pretty sound outlook, though when Henne was named the quarterback for the Chiefs’ last regular-season game after they had already clinched the AFC’s No. 1 seed, the start was his first since 2014. The Los Angeles Chargers halted Kansas City’s 10-game win streak, but the Chiefs raced to an early lead against the Browns despite coming off a first-round bye.
It is worth noting that Mahomes sprinted off the field for testing after first wobbling to the sideline against the Browns. Reid said later that Mahomes sustained an injury to his neck area and also, a toe injury Mahomes suffered is not causing him any problems.
“We’re just leaving it the way we do,” Reid said of his quarterback situation. “Chad’s comfortable with it and he feels that he can handle that if need be, so I think that’s gone well there.”
While everyone is awaiting word on Mahomes’ status, the word on the Bills’ Josh Allen is he is playing at a level equal to any quarterback still competing in the postseason.
Considering that list of greats includes Mahomes, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, Allen is in select company. He doesn’t get distracted by comparisons, though.
“I’m just trying to be the best version of myself,” Allen said. “I’m not trying to compare to the other guys who are arguably some of the best to ever play the game, the ones who are left. I’m just focused on what I can do.”
Ever since a 26-17 loss to the Chiefs in Week 6, the Bills have rolled to 11 wins in 12 games, including eight straight, to gain their first AFC Championship appearance since 1993.
Allen’s steady improvement with the Bills rode a huge uptick this season when he recorded eight 300-yard passing performances.
“He’s poised. I’ve never seen him overly excited,” said Stefon Diggs, whose All-Pro season included NFL highs of 1,535 yards and 127 catches. “For him putting his head down and gaining actual (rushing) yards, things like that go far with us.”
If the matchup comes down to key defensive stops, consider that Buffalo has allowed touchdowns on just two of eight red-zone situations in the playoffs. Taron Johnson converted one into a pick-six in the divisional round win against Baltimore.
As for Kansas City, it ranked last in the NFL in red-zone defense, allowing a touchdown rate of 76.6 percent. Yet the Chiefs have held nine opponents to 20 or fewer points.
Two Chiefs playmakers, Sammy Watkins (calf) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle) are practicing after missing the divisional round. Linebacker Willie Gay (ankle) did not practice Wednesday.
Vernon Butler (quad) and Gabriel Davis (ankle) did not practice Wednesday for Buffalo.
–Field Level Media