The Chiefs Are Going To Beat The Bengals In The AFC Championship, And Here’s Why

Ever since the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Buffalo Bills 27-10 last Sunday, setting up a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, I’ve been searching for the proper angle of how approach, or predict, this contest’s outcome. I think my initial gut instinct was to feel the typical doom-and-gloom I generally experience any time the Chiefs take the field for a matchup as big as this one. Then, publicly, of course, I just default to “The Chiefs are going to win.” But I’ve gone back and forth on this so many times that I don’t even know if it matters anymore. One way or another I am going to be proven right, because I have literally pictured every possible future.

This exercise has obviously been made more complicated by Patrick Mahomes suffering a high ankle sprain in last weekend’s 27-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. It doesn’t require any sort of football savant to understand that Kansas City’s chances would be greatly improved had Mahomes not been hampered with an injury that commonly requires four weeks of recovery time. It is a safe assumption to say he will not be the same, that the Chiefs’ offense will not look the same, and that for the home team and top seed in the AFC to win it’s going to take a helluva lot.

And the Bengals are a good fucking team. Joe Burrow is excellent, which has been established on many occasions but illuminated in particular by the fact that he has a perfect 3-0 record in his career against the Chiefs — including a 27-24 overtime win in last year’s AFC Championship where at one point Cincinnati trailed 21-3. Of all the teams and all the great quarterbacks in the NFL, Burrow has quickly become the boogyman.

But that is why I am trying to attack this preview a little bit differently. Everybody knows the Bengals have defeated the Chiefs three times in a row by three points each time. Everybody knows Burrow is good. Everybody knows Mahomes ankle has him compromised. And that is likely what has driven the point spread from what likely would have been Kansas City as a 3.5-point favorite all the way into the territory it is at right now — as I write this — with the Chiefs being favored by anywhere between 1- and 1.5. (As of this morning the Bengals were favored.)

My official take is this: It means something that the Chiefs blew a 21-3 lead in last year’s AFC Championship. There are plenty of theories into how that happened — ranging from Patrick Mahomes getting a concussion to Andy Reid refusing to run the ball to Kansas City getting complacent altogether — but no matter which flavor you want to sprinkle onto your pain the truth of the matter is that it happened. The Chiefs choked, and the Bengals ended up winning and going to the Super Bowl.

I think with a team as good as the Chiefs are, and as good as they have been over the last five years, it’s hard not to feel good about yourself. It’s difficult to constantly find that motivation in the morning. Because when Patrick Mahomes plays quarterback for you, and you take a 21-3 lead in any game, you expect to win one way or another.

Last year, the magic that Kansas City so often felt was taken away from them. It took Joe Burrow and a young, upstart Bengals squad to remind them that it doesn’t fucking matter how good Patrick Mahomes is. Greatness is one of those things that in sports generally doesn’t last very long, and the team that happens to be great generally doesn’t get to decide when it’s over. The rest of the league gets better, catches up, and that’s that.

As a consequence, last season’s AFC Championship Game loss in a way forced the Chiefs to start over. They traded Tyreek Hill and let the leader of their defense, Tyrann Mathieu, walk in free agency to the Saints. They effectively replaced those two crucial elements of their team — that were two of the main drivers in their Super Bowl win in 2019 and Super Bowl appearance in 2020 — with a wide array of rookies and cheap free agent signings. That was Kansas City’s resolution. That so long as they had Patrick Mahomes playing quarterback, they would figure out the rest.

It’s hard at this point to deny the results: The Chiefs finished the regular season 14-3 and procured the lone first round bye in the AFC. Mahomes is going to win his second MVP. The rookies on the team got valuable playing time and are going to be critical in how Sunday’s 3:30 game against the Bengals finishes. These are all the things we know.

What requires a bit of nuance is deciphering just how much last year’s loss means to the Chiefs. I think that is the only thing that matters at this point. Yes, Mahomes will be playing at less than 100%. But the bigger question is how willing are Kansas City to allow their story to be written by other football teams? Does a scenario exist where a younger, less talented quarterback comes into Arrowhead Stadium and beats Patrick Mahomes for a second time? Is football’s next great dynasty going to wilt at the hands of the Cincinnati fucking Bengals, of all teams?

To be fair, the Bengals actually remind me a lot of the Chiefs from 2018 and 2019. They are extremely talented. They talk a lot of shit. They are good and they know they are good. But if we call last year’s AFC Championship Game, and the collapse that ensued, some act of god, then I am willing to place my bet that this year’s AFC Championship is much more in the vein of the 2018 year when Tom Brady came into Arrowhead and beat the Chiefs in overtime 37-31.

That may come across as a bit abstract, at least in a football sense, but I think it’s valid. It turned out to be an all-time classic game and it had everything you want. The Patriots led 14-0 at the half and Patrick Mahomes rallied the Chiefs to 31 second half points, including a ping-pong of scoring down the stretch that saw KC take the lead, the Patriots retake the lead, and Mahomes driving the Chiefs for a game-tying field goal as time expired.

The problem was, Tom Brady was not going to lose. It was his Over My Dead Body game. Sure, New England was gifted the coin flip in overtime and that had a lot to do with it as well. Mahomes never possessed the ball. But it was a statement of sorts: it was the Patriots saying We Are That Team And Your Time Will Come.

We are now on the other side of that paradigm. Patrick Mahomes is now universally regarded as the best quarterback on the planet, and instead of the Chiefs needing to wait in line for their turn that team is now the Bengals. I don’t know many things. I am a simple man and a simple sports fan. But something that burns inside of me is saying that the Chiefs are not going to go so quietly into that good night. They are not going to allow the Bengals to take away their chance at two Super Bowl wins and three Super Bowl appearances in the last four years. The Chiefs are that team. The Bengals time will come.

And yeah maybe Mahomes’s ankle is truly fucked up and the Bengals are going to blow them out and nothing else matters. That is absolutely on the table. For an instant though — for this instant that I will never get back — I am willing to put on my rose-colored glasses and push all my chips into the middle of the table and suggest that it doesn’t matter how Mahomes’s ankle feels and it doesn’t matter how good Joe Burrow and the Bengals are and it doesn’t matter. Over Patrick Mahomes’s dead body is the only way Cincinnati comes into Kansas City two years in a row and wins the AFC Championship. That is the only way it’s going to happen.

Maybe I’m wrong. I could totally be wrong. I will surely go into Sunday’s game expecting for the worst of all outcomes. But one thing I have appreciated so much about these last five years with Mahomes and the Chiefs is having something I can rely on one day out of every week for some four months out of the year. It’s a rare thing, being able to depend on something that makes me happy. What kind of fan would I be if I simply expected the worst all the time and didn’t believe in the moments that sometimes ask for nothing but belief?

So let’s go, Chiefs. Let’s win another fucking AFC Championship. Let’s do it for the third time in five years. Let’s go to another Super Bowl. Let’s remind the world that we’re not dead yet. That it’s not over. Let’s make a great story out of a season where we remembered that as long as Patrick Mahomes is playing quarterback, anything is possible.

Score prediction: Chiefs 31, Bengals 27

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