National Football League
Bengals vs. Chiefs: Predictions and preview for the AFC title game
National Football League

Bengals vs. Chiefs: Predictions and preview for the AFC title game

Updated Jan. 27, 2023 2:23 p.m. ET

For the second year in a row, the Chiefs and Bengals face off with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line. 

Kansas City hosts Cincinnati in the AFC Championship Game Sunday evening at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. For the Chiefs, it represents an NFL-record fifth straight conference championship game at home.

This matchup pits Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, the front-runner to win his second NFL MVP in six seasons, and Bengals QB Joe Burrow, who checked another box in his rise to stardom by outdueling the Bills' Josh Allen in the divisional round. Most NFL observers would agree that Mahomes is the best quarterback in the league. An increasing number of folks would put Burrow at No. 2. 

Can Joe Burrow surpass Patrick Mahomes?

Emmanuel Acho, Joy Taylor, LeSean McCoy and David Helman debate whether Joe Burrow would surpass Patrick Mahomes if Burrow defeats the Chiefs for the fourth straight time.

The Bengals are 3-0 against the Chiefs with Burrow starting at quarterback, including their comeback victory in the 2021 AFC Championship Game to punch their ticket to Super Bowl 56. Cincinnati trailed by as many as 18 points in the game, but rallied back to win in overtime with a field goal from kicker Evan McPherson

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Kansas City reached its fifth straight AFC title game by toppling Jacksonville 27-20 in the divisional round. Cincinnati cruised to a 27-10 victory over Buffalo last Sunday. 

For more on the Bengals-Chiefs matchup, FOX Sports AFC South writer Ben Arthur and FOX Sports NFL analyst Geoff Schwartz take a closer look:

Ben Arthur: Geoff, how are you feeling about the Chiefs' prospects in this AFC Championship Game rematch? For obvious reasons, Kansas City is less threatening on paper with Mahomes battling a high-ankle sprain, suffered in the first quarter of last week's divisional-round win against Jacksonville. He was a completely different quarterback when he returned to the game in the second half, essentially tied to the pocket. Being an effective scrambler is such a big part of his game, and it's looking like he won't have that in his tool bag Sunday with limited time to heal from the injury. 

Geoff Schwartz: As we know, the Bengals have beaten the Chiefs in three straight games, and although those games have all been different, there has been one consistent theme: the Chiefs blowing a lead. Kansas City led by at least seven points in all of their games, with a fourth-quarter win expectancy of at least 75%, in all three of the losses. 

Those late-game collapses were with a healthy Mahomes, who will not be 100 percent in the game Sunday. I do trust Andy Reid & Co. to prepare a game plan that will get the most from the offense. They have no choice, because the defense — while better lately — and special teams cannot be counted on to win the game. So I don't feel super confident the Chiefs can beat the Bengals with an injured Patrick Mahomes. 

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I'm curious how the Bengals will choose to defend the Chiefs knowing Mahomes might not move as much in the pocket. How do you think the Bengals defense goes about stopping a possibly limited Chiefs offense? 

Arthur: If you're Cincinnati, priority No. 1 has to be keying on tight end Travis Kelce. He's been a security blanket for Mahomes for years, and his reliance on Kelce has only grown this season with Tyreek Hill no longer in the picture. For Kansas City at pass-catcher, it's essentially Kelce and everyone else — some good wide receivers, but no one you would call a game-changing No. 1 option. Just look at the divisional round, where Kelce had 17 of the team's 35 targets against Jacksonville. 

Kelce, already established as one of the best tight ends of all time, isn't someone you shut down completely. But if you can find a way to limit him, this Chiefs offense isn't nearly as scary. The Bengals have a big-bodied, versatile cornerback in Tre Flowers (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), who should get several looks against Kelce. At the end of the day, though, it's going to take a number of guys and some double teams to cover him effectively. Cincinnati must find a way to force the other skill guys — think JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Kadarius Toney — to beat them one-on-one. 

But Geoff, I know you're our offensive-line guru here at FOX. What do you make of Burrow's banged-up O-line, and what are its chances of keeping the QB upright against a Chris Jones-led pass rush? 

Schwartz: If you had asked me, "Hey Schwartz, a team is heading to Buffalo with three backup offensive linemen, can they operate a functional offense?" I'd have told you that's not possible. We'd see a flurry of pressures and hits on Burrow, plus a bunch of stalemates at the line of scrimmage in the run game. Yet, none of that happened last week. I have never seen an offense, even going back to last season, function this efficiently with a poor-on-paper offensive line. 

Joe Burrow exposes Josh Allen in win over Bills

The Bengals stamped their ticket to the AFC Championship Game by defeating Josh Allen and the Bills 27-10. Craig Carton lays out what this loss says about the Bills, and whether they've been overrated all season.

Part of that is Burrow, who is a wizard in the pocket and is able to avoid hits and pressures at an elite rate. The Bengals had the quick game dialed up early in Buffalo. The game-plan design also put their blocking unit into favorable looks in the run game and their line executed. In fact, their line mauled the Bills'.

Now, the Chiefs are better upfront than the Bills, especially when rushing the passer with Jones. But when has that mattered against the Bengals in their three matchups? Jones had six pressures in each of the matchups last season before only having two in the first matchup this season. Also, when the Chiefs have gotten close to Burrow, he just escapes out the front of the pocket for first downs. He rushed a season-high 11 times for 46 yards in the matchup against the Chiefs earlier this season. 

The Chiefs love to bring pressure, but mostly sat back in a soft zone in the Week 13 matchup to avoid giving up the big play — a bend-but-don't-break style defense. Burrow ate that up. He was 17-of-19 against the Chiefs' zone. The Chiefs must force the Bengals offense to make some mistakes. 

Ben, how have teams slowed down the Bengals offense this season? What is the recipe for that? 

Arthur: Honestly, it has started with taking advantage of the Bengals' O-line. In the four games Cincinnati has lost this season (the last being on Halloween, against the Browns), a common thread has been shaky pass protection. Cincinnati gave up an average of 5.25 sacks and eight quarterback hits in those losses. 

So while Burrow is more than capable of transcending deficiencies upfront, finding ways to get pressure is probably the best way to stop him and his dynamic weapons. Nine of the Bengals' 14 wins (regular season and postseason) have come with fewer than 80 net rushing yards, and their defense has been a top-10 unit since the start of November. So if you're Kansas City, winning this game has to start with Jones, Frank Clark and rookie George Karlaftis wreaking havoc in the trenches. 

With all that said, it's prediction time. Geoff, what do you see happening Sunday night at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium? 

Schwartz: There's a short list of teams that have lost the Super Bowl and even returned to the conference championship game, let alone a return trip to the Super Bowl. The Bengals are back in this spot because of the reasons we have laid out above, but also because they do not make mistakes and are good in the fringes. The Bengals do not turn the ball over. They have 18 total turnovers this season, with five of those coming in the first game of the season. It's hard to stop an offense like the Bengals' over the course of a game without forcing turnovers. 

And the Bengals do not commit penalties — they tied for fourth-fewest in the league, and even better, they were second-best in total penalty yards. So their penalties aren't crippling, like pass interferences or personal fouls. They don't allow explosive plays often on defense. They are good in the red zone. All of these factors, combined with their personnel, are the reasons they are in this spot again. 

With all that being said, the Chiefs have been in the lead in the fourth quarter in all three of the losses to the Bengals. They are coming into this game with the understanding they know how to play the Bengals, but they need to finish these games better. We saw the entire team raise its level of play when Mahomes injured his ankle last Saturday against the Jaguars. They have a week to prepare an offensive design knowing that Mahomes has limited movement. 

I cannot dent the overall talent of the Bengals and what I've just discussed above. So I'm going to hammer this pick with my heart because my head might give you something else. 

Chiefs 24, Bengals 23

Arthur: I think this is the Bengals' moment. All season, it felt like their run to Super Bowl LVI was glossed over, like it was some kind of fluke. The Bills and Chiefs were pegged as the heavy AFC favorites. Then the league told Buffalo and Kansas City to start selling tickets for a potential neutral site AFC Championship Game. I think all of that has been fuel for Cincinnati. 

A limited Mahomes is still better than most quarterbacks in the league. Burrow is not one of them. I expect him to lead the Bengals, on a 10-game winning streak entering the weekend, to a victory, a step closer to the Lombardi Trophy that eluded them last season. 

Bengals 26, Chiefs 23

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

Geoff Schwartz played eight seasons in the NFL for five different teams. He started at right tackle for the University of Oregon for three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection his senior year. He is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @GeoffSchwartz.

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