When the Marvin Lewis era began, the Cincinnati Bengals wisely became hyper-focused on how to get through their division. It made a ton of sense, given Lewis’ Pittsburgh background and pedigree as the architect of one of the NFL’s greatest defenses ever seen in the 2001 Baltimore Ravens’ unit.
No one needs to be told that those are a couple of the perennial top dogs in the AFC North, but Lewis’ strategy helped propel the Bengals back into the divisional and conference pictures, with four divisional titles and a couple of close second-place finishes netting playoff berths.
While there were warranted criticisms in his tenure, Lewis made the Bengals competitive and a headache for many. He left Cincinnati with winning records against both the Browns and the Ravens after 16 seasons with the Bengals.
Zac Taylor assumed that mantle, and after a two-year rebuild of the team, Cincinnati churned out two straight AFC North titles. The first one was particularly sweet, with sweeps over both Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
While the Bengals have kept a vigil eye on the North, their recent postseason success has also turned their focus on others in the conference. As they’ve previously achieved and failed, Cincinnati has also built their recent teams for the likes of Buffalo, Kansas City, Miami, Jacksonville, and the L.A. Chargers.
But, you can only keep spinning so many plates at one time.
Such was on display last week when the Bengals were embarrassed right before Christmas at the hands of the Steelers—the one team no Cincinnati coach can seem to get a first grasp upon. Kansas City suffered a similar humiliation that same weekend with their own bungling divisional loss to the Raiders.
Both teams are on a path to redemption this week, but both have major questions. “Being the winner the last two years (of the AFC North), obviously, we had a target on our back”, Sam Hubbard recently told Paul Dehner, Jr. of The Athletic.
That target started long before last week’s Christmas Eve-Eve dismantling of the Bengals. Hell, it existed prior to the other four 2023 divisional losses Cincinnati has suffered through.
Ever since the improbable 2021 run by these Bengals and their subsequent “Burrowhead” march through the 2022 postseason, they became the team to beat. Cincinnati not only had two straight divisional titles, but defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo got a major run as a head coaching candidate for his work against the Chiefs in the most recent four games.
Kansas City seems to be feeling that target weighing them down this year after beating the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game and the Eagles in the Super Bowl last year. They’ve plodded to a 9-6 record after coming out of the gates 6-1.
The Arrowhead juggernauts have been erratic and inconsistent, starting with the play on offense. Drops, miscommunication, and a lack of a true game-breaking wideout are holding back Kansas City from what it once was.
Cincinnati, on the other hand, never had things go right out of the gate this year. Joe Burrow suffered one injury after another, essentially being truly healthy for only about half of the 10 games he played. A myriad of stars have joined Cincinnati’s walking wounded in varying forms of capacities, limiting their potential in 2023.
Yet, through it all, backup quarterback Jake Browning and a feast-or-famine Bengals defense have gone 3-2 since Burrow’s latest season-ending injury. It has Cincinnati improbably in the playoff hunt right now, with two daunting games to finish off the year—at Kansas City and hosting the Browns in the finale.
Oddly enough because of their polar opposite NFL career paths, Browning and Patrick Mahomes may need to learn tough lessons from last week and play a touch less of hero ball. That’s not so easy for the latter, who is the generation’s greatest passer, but things haven’t been working fully correctly around him.
Browning can more ably do this if he avoids the costly turnovers from last week and the team finds more balance. In their three-game win streak against playoff-caliber teams, Browning made his share of plays, but a lot of things came out of plays being made out of the running backs—be it via run or pass.
Isiah Pacheco is a maybe this week, so it will likely be a lot of Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the responsibilities. It’s definitely not a “lean on the run approach” overall for the Chiefs with Mahomes under center, but pace and methodical drives from both teams may be the names of the game this week.
DraftKings is heavily favoring Kansas City in this one, nearly making them a touchdown favorite at home (+6.5). It makes sense, given Cincinnati’s battered overall roster at the moment and the Bengals’ deplorable showing a week ago.
Even so, I mean, we have to be talking about a three-point result here, right? The 2021 regular season fireworks show was 34-31, with the follow-up in the AFC Championship Game that postseason being 27-24, both in favor of the Bengals.
Another epic regular season clash in 2022 occurred with Cincinnati grabbing a huge 27-24 win. But, the Bengals were finally bested 23-20 by the Chiefs in the ensuing conference championship clash.
Still, those four iconic games for both fan bases included Burrow at the helm for the Bengals. As we mentioned, Browning has played admirably, but Arrowhead, on the cusp of when the calendar turns to another year, is a different animal.
This game could go either way, but a somewhat(?)-healthier Chiefs team at home on a week wherein they need a huge rebound seems imminent. Cincinnati could definitely sneak away with one here, but Burrow has been absolutely magical in almost every one of these recent clashes.
Can Browning harness some of No. 9’s innate playmaking ability and play more like the guy who lit up the Jaguars, Colts, and Vikings? Ja’Marr Chase is a maybe for this one, and while you don’t like to place so much importance on a non-quarterback playing in a game, the result just may hinge on his impact.
Chiefs 20, Bengals 17