1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Chiefs -5, Over/Under: 51.0
The penultimate weekend of the regular season kicks off this afternoon with an engaging matchup of division leaders, as the surging Kansas City Chiefs look to maintain momentum on the road at the upstart Cincinnati Bengals, who are looking to topple yet another established stronghold in the AFC en route to fending off their opposition within the division in this encounter from Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. Given their miserably inconsistent start to the 2021 campaign, it’s rather remarkable that the Chiefs (11-4, 1st in AFC West) have managed to get their !@#$ together and ascend back to the top of the conference, but then again this is the same team that has participated in three consecutive AFC Championship Games and each of the last two Super Bowls. Kansas City was an utterly shocking 3-4 back in late October thanks in large part to committing the most turnovers in the National Football League (17), and an absolutely porous defense that had been eviscerated for an average of 29.0 points per game on 419.2 total yards. However, eight consecutive victories later and they have not only clinched their sixth consecutive AFC West title but are also officially the only team in the conference that has clinched a spot in the playoffs, and if they win out will clinch the no. one overall seed for a fourth straight postseason. So, what has changed so dramatically for (Head Coach) Andy Reid’s troops, you ask? Well, first and foremost the offense has stopped shooting themselves in the foot with inexcusable mistakes; the Chiefs have totaled just eight giveaways in as many games, which when coupled with the torrid play of the defense (who we will get into very shortly) logging TWENTY-ONE takeaways, they’ve managed an outstanding turnover differential of plus-13 during that period, flipping their season-long margin from minus-10 to a much healthier plus-3 in just nine weeks. (2018 MVP) Patrick Mahomes (66.1%, 4,310 YDS, 6.90 NY/A, 33 TD, 13 INT, 59.0 QBR) in particular has cleaned up his act, going from accounting for all but six (9 INT) of his club’s turnovers during that disappointing start, to giving away the football just six times in the last eight outings. The two reasons for this are the budding chemistry of a completely overhauled Offensive Line that features five new starters from last year’s group, and an understanding that he simply can’t heave the football downfield recklessly against defenses that continue to employ two-deep zones. With the exception of two affairs with the Raiders, whom he TORCHED for 664 yards and seven touchdowns, no opponent has played two-deep coverage on fewer than 50% of their snaps, with the 26-year-old gunslinger finally understanding that he can simply take what the opposition is giving him, which as it turns out happens to be plenty of open space. With that said, we all expected Reid and Mahomes to eventually figure things out, but the far juicier narrative has been on the opposite side of the football where the defense has become their greatest catalyst for success. As we touched upon earlier, this unit was dreadful throughout the first half of the campaign, but in their defense (pun intended) they were dealing with a number of significant losses, including injuries and spells on the COVID-Reserve List for (Defensive Linemen) Frank Clark (19 TKL, 3 TFL, 16 QBH, 3.5 SK, 2 FF) and Chris Jones (23 TKL, 6 TFL, 14 QBH, 7.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 5 PD), with the latter inexplicably being played out of position on the edge. (Defensive Coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo’s defenses have a track record of getting better during the second half of the season, and they longtime assistant has once again turned the proverbial corner; Kansas City has been nothing short of DOMINANT during this win streak, relegating opponents to a mere 12.8 points per game on just 325.2 total yards, and while we already gave you the volume of turnovers that they’ve amassed, they’ve also terrorized opposing Quarterbacks with eighteen sacks. Furthermore, after struggling to get off the field on third down during their poor start (48.7%), they’ve performed a complete about-face in permitting a success rate of 31.3% over this recent stretch. Clark and Jones are healthy again, with the latter back to wreaking havoc on the interior of the Line where he belongs, while the addition of (former Pro-Bowl Edge-Rusher) Melvin Ingram (10 TKL, 1 TFL, 3 QBH, 1.0 SK) has added yet another veteran presence to collapse the pocket. Simply put, this group has grown accustomed to winning games with their defense, which should be an absolute nightmare for the rest of the NFL. When we last saw them, they were busy embarrassing the fading Steelers in a 36-10 demolition that wasn’t even that close. The Chiefs erupted with twenty-three unanswered points on their first four drives, outgaining the visitors by 168 yards during that span of action, with the defense bookending an interception of (Pittsburgh Quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger with a pair of punts followed by a missed field goal. It wouldn’t get better for the Black & Yellow, who would turn it over on downs before heading into halftime trailing 23-0. Things would not improve in the second half as they fumbled away their first possession of the third quarter, leading to another Mahomes touchdown, this time to (Tight End) Byron Pringle (34 REC, 477 YDS, 14.0 Y/R, 5 TD) for sixteen yards. In the end, the home side relinquished just 303 total yards and forced three turnovers, two of which were attributed to Roethlisberger whom they turned into their own personal punching bag; the veteran passer was 23-of-35 for just 159 yards, a touchdown and an interception, was pressured six times, sacked twice and stripped of the football once. Reid’s charges in turn finished with 381 total yards and held possession for a commanding 34:42 thanks in large part to rushing for 127 yards on thirty-five carries. Mahomes was excellent in completing 23-of-30 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns, with the aforementioned Pringle hauling in six receptions for seventy-five yards and a pair of scores on seven targets in place of (All-Pro Tight End) Travis Kelce (83 REC, 1,066 YDS, 12.8 Y/R, 7 TD), who entered COVID protocols earlier in the week. Kansas City has faced Cincinnati just twice since Reid arrived back in 2013, splitting the two meetings though the only one to feature Mahomes as the Starting Quarterback was firmly in favor of the four-time Pro-Bowler, who deftly completed 28-of-39 passes for 358 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-10 drubbing of the Bengals at Arrowhead Stadium back in 2018. With the exception of (Sophomore Tailback) Clyde Edwards-Helaire (138 TCH, 646 YDS, 4.7 Y/T, 6 TD), who hasn’t practiced all week with an ailing shoulder and has thus been branded as week-to-week, this team is relatively healthy, with the aforementioned Kelce recently clearing protocols and should return for today’s contest.
Meanwhile, as the Chiefs return to their status as king of the proverbial mountain in the AFC, the Bengals (9-6, 1st in AFC North) are one of nearly a dozen teams chasing them for a spot in the playoffs. If there was one coaching staff in the NFL this season that needed to see a major leap from their team, it was easily (Head Coach) Zac Taylor & Co, who in the previous two years with the franchise stumbled to a miserable 6-25-1 record (.230) en route to finishing in the cellar of the competitive AFC North for a third consecutive year. Granted, this was always going to be a particularly long and arduous rebuild that had been quite frankly a long time coming, and fortunately for everyone involved, the Brown family are notorious for their patience with their employees. And to the delight of everyone in Southern Ohio, that patience is paying off in spades as these young Bengals have grown exponentially in 2021, rising all the way to the top of the division and on the precipice of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2015. So, what in the name of Anthony Munoz has gotten into this team, you ask? Well, a franchise with one of the smallest scouting departments in the league has done an absolutely outstanding job of drafting players and signing free agents, while Taylor and his staff have done a great job of developing the talent on hand. Unsurprisingly, we have to begin with (Sophomore Quarterback) Joe Burrow (69.9%, 4,165 YDS, 7.25 NY/A, 30 TD, 14 INT, 52.7 QBR), who has put any concerns over that torn ACL that prematurely ended his rookie campaign behind him, establishing himself as one of the premier young passers in the game today. The 25-year-old has completed 69.9% of his passes for an average of 277.7 yards per game on a league-high 8.7 yards per attempt, with thirty touchdowns in comparison to fourteen interceptions, exhibiting the same poise and presence that made him one of the greatest Quarterbacks in collegiate history. Sure, he’s tossed the most interceptions in the NFL (14) and has been sacked more times than any of his contemporaries (47), but that’s all been a biproduct of this identity. They’re not going to be conservative or dink and dunk. No, they’re going to be aggressive and attack and attack some more until you’re ready to tap out. Case in point: Burrow absolutely eviscerated the Ravens’ defense for 525 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-21 blowout of their division rivals last weekend, responding in kind to comments made by members of Baltimore’s coaching staff earlier in the week leading up to the affair. After falling behind 7-3, Cincy ran off twenty-one unanswered points in a span of just eight minutes, as Burrow hit (Receiver) Tyler Boyd (63 REC, 792 YDS, 12.6 Y/R, 4 TD) for a 68-yard touchdown bomb before finding (Tailback) Joe Mixon (280 CAR, 1,159 YDS, 4.1 Y/A, 13 TD) for a 9-yard score on the following possession. Then as the visitors punched back with a touchdown drive of their own, Burrow retaliated with a seven-play, 75-yard drive culminating in another touchdown, this time to (Sophomore Wideout) Tee Higgins (71 REC, 1,029 YDS, 14.5 Y/R, 6 TD) in just 1:17 of game time to take a commanding 31-14 lead into halftime. While many thought that Taylor would take his foot off the gas pedal, that would not be the case for his Quarterback continued to carve up the visiting side for another touchdown to Higgins later in the fourth quarter after leading 34-21. It’s rare to see the Ravens, who were down to their third string Quarterback due to injuries and COVID, get manhandled in such fashion, but the Bengals totaled 575 yards of offense, thirty-three first downs, and held the football for a dominating 37:03, and managed to do all that despite only converting five third downs all afternoon. The home side scored on each of their first seven drives of the game, with four of them traveling over seventy yards and if not for a missed field goal, then this matchup would have been even more of a beatdown than it already was. And here is why that win was so important for Cincinnati, folks: they’ve now bested both the Ravens and Steelers in each of their four meetings this season, and handedly we may add by a staggering EIGHTY-NINE points, sweeping the two powerhouses of the AFC North for the first time since 2009. And now they are in the driver’s seat of the division, leading Baltimore by essentially two games thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker and can flat-out clinch the division with a win today over the torrid Chiefs. Looking at even bigger things, Cincy can potentially wrestle the no. one overall seed from Kansas City if they manage to beat them, followed by another win and a loss for Mahomes & Co in the season finale next weekend. With all that said, we’re about to see just how mature this group really is, for while they’ve proven that they’re capable of reaching extreme highs this season, they’ve also left us scratching our heads in bewilderment. Taylor’s troops failed to show up in perplexing losses to the lowly Bears (17-20) and Jets (31-34), who together have a mustered a combined record of 9-21, while getting blown out of the water by both the Browns (16-41) and Chargers (22-41), who are clearly flawed sides in their own right yet managed to torch them for forty-one points apiece. A true contender would take care of business against those teams, and unfortunately there is simply no substitute for real experience in this case. If you carry the opinion that Burrow & Co have developed a habit of playing to the level of their competition, then we won’t argue that point, though by that train of thought they should be ready for a shootout against the Chiefs, whom they haven’t beaten since 2015.