It had to be the Kansas City Chiefs. It had to be.
The vibe going into last year’s AFC Championship was one of excitement and wonderment. Could the Cincinnati Bengals pull off an upset as seven-point underdogs with an embattled offensive line in a venue that is nearly impossible to win at?
They did. And it instilled a bravado that hasn’t been seen with a Bengals team since...ever?
Now let’s be clear, the Bengals had a sense of confidence during last year’s playoff run. The phrase “It Is Us” didn’t derive out of meekness. But proof of concept does wonders to one’s psyche. They’ve been here before, literally, in this stadium, in this part of the calendar, against this opponent. They’re more ready than they ever could be.
A Lombardi Trophy may not be on the line, but perhaps the paradigm of the AFC is up for grabs. Who can call the Bengals anything but the favorite to come out of the conference next year if they defeated the Bills and Chiefs on the road in back-to-back weeks?
In order to get to that point, these are the matchups the Bengals will need to win on top of all the other headlines.
DJ Reader vs. Creed Humphrey
It was just his second game back from a torn MCL, but Reader was not at his best against the Chiefs back in Week 13. Kansas City actually had a very solid run game in the first half of play before the game started to get away from them. Reader’s impact was negligible, and the Chiefs took advantage when they could.
Now that Reader has re-established some post-injury consistency, this will be a true strength vs. strength battle inside. No center has been more dominant in the run game than Humphrey has since entering the league two years ago. The Chiefs have built their run game around zone concepts, which means it’ll be a day’s worth of Humphrey reaching Reader to try and seal him out. This will be fun to observe.
Mike Hilton vs. Kadarius Toney
The health and effectiveness of Patrick Mahomes is topic 1a for this game, and if the Chiefs’ passing game reflects their limiting of him in any way, an influx of plays to get the ball out of his hands in haste seems likely. That means screens, slants, and anything else you can think of.
Toney is but one of four Chiefs receiving options with at least 40% of his snaps coming out of the slot, but his 44% of targets being screen plays leads the team by nearly 10%.
It takes more than one defender to counter a well-timed and blocked screen pass, but Hilton’s ability to disrupt and pack a punch makes him an ideal defender to limit the amount yards after the catch Toney and Co. are expected to generate in this offense, especially if their quarterback can’t extend plays all game long.
Ja’Marr Chase vs. Trent McDuffie
The Chiefs knew what they needed on defense after their 2021 season was derailed by Chase and the Bengals. McDuffie has played considerably well for a first-round pick. He leads their secondary in man coverage snaps per receptions allowed at a clip of 16.4 in 12 games played. On average, quarterbacks don’t target McDuffie’s assigned receiver in man more than once a game, but that won’t be the case if he lines up one-on-one with Uno.
Chase’s drafting back in 2021 was a statement made by the Bengals. They were building an offense that could rival, and maybe even best the Chiefs. The results thus far have been immaculate, and you have to think the Chiefs have been spending extra focus on how to stop him. McDuffie was only targeted twice when covering Chase last time out and allowed an eight-yard reception. Maybe KC’s response is to follow Chase with their rookie corner.
Hakeem Adeniji vs. George Karlaftis
The developments at left tackle for Cincinnati has allowed Adeniji to fly under the radar on the other side of the line. Adeniji now has four games under his belt at right tackle since La’el Collins went down with a torn ACL in Week 16. He’s been charged with 15 pressures and has a Pro Football Focus pass block grade of 30.7. Neither metric always tells the whole story, especially for a four-game sample size, but the tape does back it up. Adeniji’s been a bit rough, and the passing game has survived in spite of it.
We can use the same timeframe to gauge how Karlaftis has improved as a rookie edge rusher. The first-round pick has three sacks in his last four games and a handful of additional pressures to boot in 104 snaps against the pass. His 10.8% win rate is still below where you’d want it to be, but he’s trending upwards in terms of finishing ability. Don’t discount this matchup while the rest of the offensive line deals with Chris Jones and Frank Clark.