The Cincinnati Bengals find a familiar foe in front of them in Sunday's AFC title game with the Kansas City Chiefs blocking the way to a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance.
This will be the fourth meeting between the two teams since Week 17 of last season. The Bengals have won all three, albeit each came by just three points and required clutch plays late.
That alone makes Sunday's outcome murky. It's one of pro football's best chess matchups right now. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has pestered likely MVP Patrick Mahomes just enough to get wins, while the Chiefs have tried a variety of different things to slow Ja'Marr Chase. But the mark is 3-0 in favor of the Bengals and anyone who would suggest that doesn't play a role on the mental side is being disingenuous.
Further muddying Sunday's game is the odd injury saga of Chiefs stars Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce. Mahomes had a brutal-looking ankle injury in the divisional round, yet in selective footage from practices as the week went on, looked fine before not even appearing on the final injury report. Kelce, however, will play but was a surprise late addition with a "questionable" tag after dealing with back spasms.
Gamesmanship or not, it won't really matter for a Bengals coaching staff that has said they'll prepare as if both guys are 100 percent either way. What's interesting is how Anarumo might approach Mahomes. Does he send blitzers? Or go with the drop-eight coverage that flustered Mahomes in the past and force him to make a play?
It goes without saying the Bengals will double Kelce all game and generally they've done a good job, holding him to four catches for 56 yards earlier this season - a far cry from his 14 catches for 98 yards and two scores in the divisional round win over the Jags.
Somehow more pressing might be containing Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco, a powerful runner who put up 67 yards and a score (4.7 average) in Week 13 against Cincinnati. Mahomes' offense is one of the league's most explosive when it goes with heavy 13 personnel, which will cause Anarumo's unit problems if he doesn't bring more linebackers on the field. Again, a chess match.
But that goes the other way, too. There might not be a hotter quarterback in the NFL than Joe Burrow right now, to the point going on the road in the snow against a 13-win team in Buffalo behind three backup offensive linemen hardly phased him last week.
Burrow's firing off the ball so fast, so careful with the football and so good at diagnosing and dissecting different coverage looks right now that his offense is one of the only units in the league capable of shrugging off offensive line changes. It doesn't hurt that Joe Mixon looks perhaps the healthiest he had all season and the ground game is very productive right now.
One matchup worth stressing in this area is Bengals running backs and tight ends in space against Chiefs linebackers. Burrow torched the Chiefs in this spot in Week 13, picking on linebackers in space all day, notably helping Samaje Perine record six catches for 49 yards. The Chiefs have tried everything against Burrow and his weapons, from mixtures of zones to straight-up man coverage that has enabled Ja'Marr Chase to torch them. There isn't a good way to cover everything the Bengals offense fields, so much will hinge once again on Burrow diagnosing and making the right choices while firing the ball out at a near-NFL-fastest rate.
An underlying theme? None of the above much matters if the trench battles swing the wrong way. Offensive line backups Jackson Carman at left tackle (for Jonah Williams), Max Scharping at right guard (Alex Cappa) and Hakeem Adeniji at right tackle (La'el Collins) need to have solid showings again. And the interior, especially, needs to hold up against Chris Jones. It's one thing if the tackles are getting beat around the edge - it's a whole different problem if Burrow can't step up into throws or escape because of interior pressure.
Quietly, DJ Reader and the Bengals defensive line needs to have one of its best games of the season too. Anarumo's defense is built to contain Lamar Jackson twice a year, just flustered Josh Allen and everyone knows the record against the Chiefs. That contain will need to be on point again so Mahomes can't escape. And if for some reason his mobility is truly limited, the line will likely have to get pressure without help in key game-deciding situations.
So for a prediction? Forget the ankle injury. Mahomes' stats as a strictly pocket passer are among the league's best. It's nearly a non-story. If Anarumo's defense can't hold against the run, it could set them up for disaster down the field through the air. Yet the Bengals should find similar success offensively. Don't forget the running game looks as good as it has all year and the Chiefs just don't have an answer for Chase, who over the course of 3-0 has 24 catches on 29 targets for 417 yards and four touchdowns.
If there's something worth highlighting for the Bengals (besides missing Mixon and tight end Hayden Hurst for most of the Week 13 win), it's that they don't blink no matter how big the stage. A near-cliche, but the team has won 10 in a row and gone 14-2 since that 0-2 start for a reason. They're hot at the right time again and like last year's overcoming big deficits against the Chiefs showed, they're never really out of a game.
This is the sort of game that brings out all types of cliches and it's so close that it just can't be helped. The team with fewer mistakes wins. The team that executes better wins. The quarterback with the ball last wins. The margin for error is super slim.
But the feel? It feels like the Bengals aren't the scrappy underdog anymore. They match up very well against the (possibly hobbled) Chiefs and that 3-0 mark atop all of the other momentum sure doesn't hurt. Another solid defensive outing, an underrated running game and mistake-free football from Burrow pulls the Bengals away late after adjustments.
Prediction: Bengals 34, Chiefs 27
Cincinnati mayor ripped for viral Bengals vs. Chiefs AFC title game trash talk
Story originally appeared on Bengals Wire