AFC's top two surprises face off on "Sunday Night Football" for conference supremacy
What would you have said in August if someone told you the top two AFC teams through six games would be the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs? But here we are, two division leaders with a combined 9-3 record squaring off in what could be a future battle for the AFC’s top seed.
The Bengals are here just six games removed from a disappointing season that nearly cost head coach Marvin Lewis his job. Instead, what had been one of the league’s most inconsistent teams have settled in and learned how to close out games in the fourth quarter. Part of a close game every week, they haven’t won or lost this season by more than 11 points.
They’ll face a Chiefs squad coming off a disappointing loss against the Patriots but still running one of the highest-powered offenses we’ve witnessed in the modern NFL. Young quarterback Patrick Mahomes will try and bounce back against a Bengals defense ranked just 28th against the pass.
Expect a high-scoring affair with perhaps the top seed for the AFC playoffs on the line. Can the Bengals find a way? Or will the comfy confines of Arrowhead get the Chiefs pointing back in the right direction?
Cincinnati at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 21 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Chiefs' high-powered offense keep on chugging?
On paper, the Chiefs continue to run circles around opposing defenses. Their 35.8 points per game leads the AFC and is second to only the Saints. Patrick Mahomes’ 18 touchdowns leads the NFL while Kareem Hunt’s 456 rushing yards are fourth in the AFC. Travis Kelce, arguably the best pass-catching tight end in football, has three 100-yard games already. The offensive line has allowed an NFL-best six sacks through six games.
And yet... it was the offense that made the difference in the Chiefs’ only loss. Mahomes has four interceptions in his last two games; the two he threw against the Patriots led to at least a seven-point swing. Unfortunately, with the defense as bad as it is even a single mistake could swing the game. It’s the type of game-changing turnover the Bengals have feasted on in eking out close victories so far this season.
Keeping it clean is key for an offensive unit whose speed and agility makes them virtually unstoppable when it’s running at 100 percent. It took just 12 seconds in a pressure-packed fourth quarter for Mahomes to tie the Patriots on a 75-yard pass to Tyreek Hill. No defense in football can cover all these speedy receivers at once, let alone a mediocre unit like the Bengals.
2. Which defense will blink first?
The Chiefs' defense, which allowed a season-high 43 points last weekend, will struggle to control the Bengals’ offense. Kansas City's 468.2 yards allowed per game is 28 yards higher than the next team, Tampa Bay. The Chiefs are ranked 31st in passing yards allowed, 27th in rushing yards allowed and have forced a middling nine turnovers thus far. Last week might have been rock bottom for this unit; the Patriots never even had to punt.
But the Bengals are no angels either on defense. They’ve allowed 409.2 yards per game, second worst in the AFC to those Chiefs and have only forced eight turnovers of their own (however key they might be). Their 23.8 first downs per game surrendered ranks 29th. Aside from perhaps Geno Atkins, they’re devoid of a major national name on defense.
And while the Chiefs' offense is what everyone is talking about the Bengals have plenty of playmakers all their own. Pro Bowler A.J. Green has already tallied nearly 500 receiving yards. Tyler Boyd has had a breakout third season, culminating in a two-touchdown day against Pittsburgh last week. Running back Joe Mixon, while without a 100-yard game yet this season, averaged 5.8 yards per carry last week.
Both offenses also don’t really turn the ball over, combining for 13 turnovers to date (two less than the Arizona Cardinals this season alone). It may simply be a battle of which team blinks first, one fumble or even punt making all the difference. Keep an eye on Andy Dalton with those numbers in mind. His four-interception day this year (against the Panthers in Week 3) is the one time the Bengals never really had a chance.
3. A butt-kicking on special teams
The Chiefs’ special teams unit has been special, a great opportunity to showcase the speed of Hill and Tremon Smith. Hill has a touchdown already on a punt return as the Chiefs’ 26.7-yard average leads the NFL. Smith broke a long kickoff return against the Patriots last week that helped jumpstart the offense. It’s just so many weapons to defend at all times.
But not enough is spoken about when it comes to the Chiefs’ special teams. They’re just one of six teams to make all their field goals this season as Harrison Butker has lifted the overall quality of their program. Last year’s seventh-round pick made the NFL All-Rookie Team by hitting 38 of his 42 field goal attempts. This season, he’s a perfect 11-for-11 while going 26-for-26 on extra points. Quickly becoming one of the sport’s reliable kickers, he’s a standout in a year where missed field goals and PATs have made the difference. Just look at the Steelers, Packers and Vikings for proof.
The Bengals’ kicker, Randy Bullock, is a seven-year veteran who has connected on seven of nine FGs so far. But Cincinnati doesn’t have the type of clutch, momentum-altering player the Chiefs have here — along with about every position on offense.
The Bengals may simply be running into the Chiefs buzz saw at the wrong time. Losing their perfect season to the Patriots, the young team looked overmatched early before gathering themselves and fighting back hard in the second half. It’s a hungry team looking to regain their footing after what they felt was a lost opportunity.
“You learn from every experience you have,” Patrick Mahomes said after falling short. It wasn’t a broken superstar but one who sounded ready to move onward and upward.
Now, his Chiefs are heading back to Arrowhead, a place where they have a record of 26-8 since the start of the 2014 season. Success at home combined with the Bengals' spotty defense could spark a Chiefs bounce back in a big way.
Prediction: Chiefs 38, Bengals 31
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.