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AFC Championship Prediction and Preview: Cincinnati Bengals vs. Kansas City Chiefs

AFC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Cincinnati Bengals vs. Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs will earn their third straight Super Bowl appearance if they can get by the Bengals at home

Just three years ago, the Kansas City Chiefs looked awfully similar to their upcoming AFC Championship Game opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals. Patrick Mahomes was just a second-year quarterback in January 2019 with a hotshot wide receiver, Tyreek Hill, as his primary target. He led the league's top-ranked offense into a showdown with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, falling just short in a bid for the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance since 1970.

Now, Mahomes and his Chiefs team have become the wily veterans capitalizing on their opportunities. Making a fourth straight trip to the AFC title game, they've won the past two along with Super Bowl LIV back in 2020. A high-flying offense hopes to play the role of Brady to second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, and a Bengals offensive unit that has come to prominence in just a few short months.

On the other side of Sunday's title game, a Bengals upset, one week after knocking off the AFC's top seed (Tennessee), would make Burrow a Cincinnati legend at just 25 years old. At stake is the team's first Super Bowl appearance since January 1989, potentially accomplished following a disastrous 25-53-2 stretch from 2016-20. Just one year ago, the team went 4-11-1 after Burrow missed most of the season with a torn ACL.

For Mahomes, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, and their organization they're also on the verge of making history. Three straight Super Bowls would match what the Patriots did before them, from 2017-19, while giving their star quarterback a chance to earn a second ring at just 26 and solidify a dynasty all his own.

It'll need to be a quick recovery for the Chiefs after arguably the best Divisional Round game in NFL history. But after battling back from a three-point deficit against the Buffalo Bills with 13 seconds to play, can they really breathe easy? After all, the last matchup was competitive, a 34-31 offensive slugfest that went the Bengals' way just one month ago.

Cincinnati holds a narrow 16-14 edge in this budding rivalry, and this will be their first matchup in the playoffs. Will the Chiefs be ready for revenge with this matchup on their home turf in Arrowhead Stadium? Or are the Bengals in position to pull off a second straight surprise?

AFC Championship: Cincinnati (12-7) at Kansas City (14-5)

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 30 at 3 p.m. ET
TV: CBS
Spread: Chiefs -7

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Joe Burrow match Patrick Mahomes?
Much has been written this month about Joe Burrow's rise to prominence in the NFL. Burrow talked tough after the team's 19-16 upset over the Titans, making clear "Cinderella" is no longer a slipper the Bengals should wear.

"I'm tired of the underdog narrative," Burrow said. "We're a really, really good team. We're here to make noise and teams are going to have to pay attention to us. We're, like I said, a really good team with really good players and coaches and we're coming for it all."

To do that, Burrow must beat a former NFL MVP who's been lights out during the postseason. Mahomes has been unstoppable, throwing for 782 yards in two games, eight touchdowns, just one interception, and a 131.7 quarterback rating. Add in another rushing TD (plus 98 yards on the ground) and it's clear his early-season struggles are a thing of the past.

You can't put a number on Burrow's leadership quality with the Bengals: it's an intangible that you can't measure through stats. But his postseason numbers have been middling by comparison: 592 passing yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a QB rating of 101.4. His offensive line also caved in against the Titans, allowing an NFL playoff record-tying nine sacks. So much for those custom G-Shock watches Burrow got them for Christmas, covered in diamonds providing extra motivation

Burrow was outstanding in the Chiefs' Week 17 matchup, going 30-for-39 for 446 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. That included rallying from three different 14-point deficits, then leading the winning drive to produce an Evan McPherson 20-yard field goal as time expired.

"See y'all in the playoffs," Mahomes reportedly said after that one — and he was right.

So rest assured, Burrow won't be intimidated. And the Chiefs just allowed Josh Allen to put together a near-perfect performance: 27-for-37, 329 yards, four touchdowns and no picks in the Bills' Divisional Round loss.

However, repeating that on the road, with the spotlight of the AFC championship front-and-center, is another level altogether. We know Mahomes will show up to play; can Burrow go punch-for-punch like Allen just did? How you feel about that question should swing your thoughts on the game. Burrow's performance to this team means that much, and it needs to be at an A+ level this Sunday.

2. Tyreek Hill vs. Ja'Marr Chase
Two of the NFL's most dynamic receivers will be on display in what's likely to be another fireworks-level performance between them. Hill was the lynchpin for the Chiefs during the Bills game, producing 150 yards, a highlight-reel 64-yard touchdown, and a 45-yard kickoff return. He's got 207 receiving yards overall and two touchdowns to lead his team in the playoffs after an AFC-best 111 catches during the regular season. The fastest man in the NFL can unleash that speed at any moment, always keeping his team in the game.

But Chase, at least against the Chiefs, outplayed Hill, who had just 40 yards in their most recent matchup. The fifth overall pick in last year's draft pick racked up a rookie-record 266 receiving yards on 11 catches in Week 16, a whopping 24.2-yard average punctuated by two touchdown catches of 65-plus yards. Every time the Bengals needed him, Chase was a Chiefs killer, picking up a 30-yard pass on third-and-27 at one point to keep a drive going.

"He knows how to set up routes, especially for a young guy," Kansas City head coach Andy Reid said earlier this week, "Then he's strong when he gets the ball in his hands."

Chase has 225 yards during the postseason, more than Hill, and two straight 100-yard receiving games. Can the Chiefs' secondary find an answer for him? They just allowed Bills receiver Gabriel Davis to run all over the field, surrendering 201 yards and an NFL playoff-record four receiving touchdowns last Sunday.

3. Forcing turnovers
Who has the most takeaways of any AFC team in the postseason? If you answered the Bengals, kudos. They have a turnover margin of plus-four, only coughing up the ball once in two games while the Chiefs actually are sitting at minus-one. The Chiefs' defense has forced just one turnover, a fumble against the Steelers in the Wild Card Round a couple of weeks ago.

But that's a far cry from how it went during the regular season. Kansas City thrived on takeaways, producing 29 (tied for fifth in the NFL) that often led to momentum-changing moments, especially during the season's second half. Cincinnati was much further down the list (tied for 17th), and its defense was middling this season, just 18th in total yards allowed.

We're about to find out if the Bengals are peaking at just the right time. For the Chiefs? At minimum, they can't let the offense dictate terms the way the Bills did over the course of the Divisional Round. At best, that leads to another back-and-forth affair settled by a coin flip in overtime.

Injury Updates

Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins made the Bengals' injury report this week, both of them practicing in full with knee and thumb injuries, respectively. Neither player is expected to be hampered on Sunday, and only two backups (edge rusher Cam Sample, DT Josh Tupou) look like they won't suit up for the game.

The Chiefs are the ones with more question marks, although only one player (RB Darrel Williams, toe) truly appears questionable to play on Sunday. The best news comes in the form of Honey Badger Tyrann Matthieu (concussion), who's now practicing in full and is in position to start after missing most of this past Sunday's game.

But a lot of defenders also joined him on the list. Among them? Cornerbacks Rashad Fenton (back) and Charvarius Ward (neck) along with linebacker Anthony Hitchens (back). It's just not something you want to see when facing the Bengals' lineup of speedy receivers and the Chiefs playing at their best when in a dime package.

Final Analysis

On paper, the Chiefs should run over a Bengals team that needs an upgrade on the offensive line. It's the first time Burrow has faced this level of competition in the postseason and the Chiefs have been there, done that.

At the same time … how is the Chiefs' defense going to stop the Bengals? Cincinnati has already proven it can win against this team. Its defense produced three Ryan Tannehill interceptions last week and McPherson looks like Justin Tucker-in-training, going four-for-four on field goals in their Divisional Round win. Don't expect these Bengals to be intimidated and the right pressure can force Mahomes into making a mistake.

It'll only take one if the Bengals play up to their potential and knock out the ultimate heavyweight at Arrowhead Stadium in a classic AFC Championship Game.

Prediction: Bengals 37, Chiefs 34

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.