Chiefs' Key Matchups to Beat Bengals in AFC Championship
The Kansas City Chiefs need to figure out how to end their three-game losing streak against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Andy Reid's team fell to the Bengals in each of the last two regular seasons and in last year's AFC Championship Game.
Kansas City has to come up with a game plan to stop Joe Burrow, and now it has the extra obstacle of compensating for what Patrick Mahomes may not be able to do in the pocket.
Mahomes is dealing with a high ankle sprain that he suffered in the first half against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round.
The Chiefs can protect Mahomes in a few different ways to keep the Bengals defense on its toes.
Isiah Pacheco's emergence in the ground attack and Travis Kelce's continued playoff dominance are assets the Chiefs can use to make up for what Mahomes can't do on Sunday.
Chris Jones vs. Cincinnati Offensive Line
The Chiefs need one of the NFL's most disruptive defensive linemen to keep the Bengals out of a rhythm.
Chris Jones needs to take advantage of the reserves on the Bengals offensive line, which is something the Buffalo Bills were unable to do in the divisional round.
Cincinnati made up for its interior weakness by running the ball with Joe Mixon right at the Bills front seven.
Buffalo did not have an answer for Cincinnati's adjustments, and it missed the presence of the injured Von Miller in the pass rush.
Jones is capable of bulldozing through the interior of the Bengals offense and slowing down Mixon, which would then put the Bengals in second- and third-and-long situations in which Joe Burrow would have to drop back and pass.
Burrow can still hurt the Chiefs with his connections to Ja'Marr Chase, but the Chiefs can negate the wide receiver's impact if its pass rush is successful.
Jones and his pass-rushing teammates do not need to record an abundance of sacks. If they can just disrupt the Bengals' rhythm, slow down Mixon and hit Burrow a few times, they can make an impact and get the ball back to Patrick Mahomes as quickly as possible.
Isiah Pacheco vs. Bengals Front Seven
Isiah Pacheco is arguably the most important offensive piece for Kansas City outside of Mahomes and Travis Kelce.
Pacheco developed into the dominant ball carrier that the Chiefs have needed to complete their offense. He replaced Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who failed to take full control of that role.
The rookie out of Rutgers ran for 95 yards on 12 carries against Jacksonville last week. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry against the Bengals in Week 13.
Cincinnati's rushing defense could make the AFC North champion susceptible to a big defeat.
The Bengals conceded 155 rushing yards in a close win over the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round. They allowed over 100 yards on the ground in nine games this season.
Kansas City gashed Cincinnati for 138 rushing yards in Week 13, with Pacheco leading the charge with 66 yards. That is a promising sign for how the Chiefs approach the game with Mahomes not at 100 percent.
If Pacheco makes the same impact on Sunday, he could be the difference-maker the Chiefs need to offset whatever they lose with Mahomes' mobility in the pocket.
Travis Kelce vs. Bengals Linebackers & Safeties
Travis Kelce is a postseason machine.
The Chiefs tight end has at least 90 receiving yards in each of his last seven postseason appearances. He found the end zone in six of those contests.
Kelce hurt the Bengals for 95 yards and a touchdown in last season's AFC Championship Game.
He was going to be a vital piece of the Kansas City offense with Mahomes at 100 percent, but now he carries more responsibilities with the quarterback suffering from the ankle injury.
Kelce has to be Mahomes' quick-release option in every area of the field. He can break away from defenders at the line of scrimmage and extend short passes into long gains for first downs, or in the case of red-zone situations, for touchdowns.
If Kelce can torture the Cincinnati linebackers and safeties, Kansas City can keep up its same high level of play even with Mahomes affected by his injury.
A drop-off in production from Kelce's remarkably high playoff standard would potentially force Mahomes to extend plays in the pocket and rely on wide receivers who can't be fully trusted yet in the postseason. Every Kansas City wide receiver had under 40 receiving yards against the Jaguars.