The Bengals Are Peaking at the Right Time

It’s off to Kansas City for the AFC championship against a shaky Patrick Mahomes and a Chiefs team they know how to beat.
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I’m not sure if you could tell from my tone in last week’s column, but inwardly I was confident Cincinnati would take out the Buffalo Bills in the division round playoff game last Sunday. I went through the usual personal superstitious nonsense and the reverse-jinxing and acknowledged the reality that the O-line was severely compromised and Josh Allen can win games by himself and everything else. But, in truth, I really thought the Bengals would win. The matchups simply favored Cincinnati.

The thoroughness of the butt-whipping, however, was surprising nonetheless. Cincinnati ripped the bark off the Bills. It was such a hammering it felt like the Bengals had better cleats, allowing them to run (or ski) circles around the home team in what was supposed to be a weather advantage for Buffalo. The final score, 27-10, didn’t justify the contrast between the sides. It could have been 41-10 just as easily.

It was a master class of offensive game planning by Zac Taylor, Brian Callahan, and Frank Pollack; outstanding coaching by Lou Anarumo on defense; and extremely high-level execution by the players, starting with Joe Burrow but including countless others, especially the fill-in linemen (tackles Jackson Carman and Hakeem Adeniji and guard Max Scharping). Cincinnati both outcoached and outplayed the Bills in the Buffalo snow, and the game was basically over late in the first quarter with the Bengals up 14-0.

In NFL circles, they often talk about creating a “CFL Offense,” meaning the ideal is to have strong first and second downs plays to avoid tough third down conversions (in Canada that’s when they punt, not on fourth down). Cincinnati must have been downing Molson’s beer and Tim Horton’s doughnuts all week, because they were as Canadian as the snowfall on Sunday. The first drive was emblematic: no third downs at all before Ja’Marr Chase’s touchdown catch. Cincinnati faced third-and-long (8-plus yards to go) just three times the entire game. Staying out of obvious passing situations is a great way to help a banged-up offensive line.

The key to making that happen is a stout running game, of course, and the Bengals kicked it old school in that department. The game was eerily similar to the 1988 AFC title game against (yes!) Buffalo, when Cincinnati ran for 175 to Buffalo’s 45. This time, it was 172-63, the difference being that Allen runs the ball a little more than Jim Kelly did. That the game took place in a snow globe just heightened the retro effect.

Carman and Adeniji, remember, were tackles all through high school (where Carman was the top recruit in the nation at the position) and college. They were awful playing out of position last year, but it stood to reason that from a mental and muscle memory standpoint they’d be much more comfortable outside. Both looked athletic and powerful on Sunday, pulling on runs and working deftly in combination with tight end blocks, while getting into pass sets far more naturally than either did at guard. Hey, it’s the NFL, you go where they tell you, but it’s apparent they were out of position in 2021. They also have some more seasoning now and aren’t struggling with the transition to the pro game. While most fans gave up on the duo following the acquisition of La’el Collins and Alex Cappa, the team kept developing them and reaped the dividend.

And, just in case the Bengals needed extra motivation, the disrespect card that the team has played over and over again this season was thrown down like the winner in an hours-long game of Uno. The NFL and the pigskin commentariat longed for a Bills-Chiefs conference final all season, not only dismissing the reigning AFC champs but actively working against the team at every turn in the wake of the Damar Hamlin incident. “Better send those refunds!” Burrow snarked after the game, and he spoke for all of us. Karma wears stripes, folks.

So now we’re right back where we were a year ago, with the Bengals at Kansas City with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. We meet again, Patrick Mahomes! Can I get you a cane?

Yes, the obvious key element to the rematch at Arrowhead Sunday evening is the health of Mahomes’ ankle, which was severely sprained against Jacksonville in the division round. The dreaded “high ankle sprain” is essentially the same injury that’s kept Cappa out of the lineup for the past three weeks. Mahomes uses his mobility to great effect, as we know. He’s still a great quarterback when in the pocket, but his slipperiness and ad lib ability make him special. Cincinnati in large part has had success against him in the last three meetings by fencing in his backyard ball, forcing him to stay put and play system football. If that job is done for them already thanks to his bad ankle, the Bengals have a leg up, so to speak.

Alas, the team will have to dig deep in the disrespect well to find a motivational ploy. Mahomes’ injury and the Buffalo Beatdown have transformed the Bengals from ignored to celebrated. Cincinnati is a two- or three-point favorite, depending on your bookmaker of choice, and the fact that they’ve won three straight over K.C. isn’t lost on anyone.

This is a dangerous spot for Our Team: road favorites, basking in belated over-the-top love from the chattering classes on a national level, Mahomes with a Willis Reed script seemingly pre-written for him. The Bengals went into Buffalo with not just the better team but the better mindset. The Chiefs are every bit as good as Cincinnati and far better in the trenches than the Bills. Their defensive line can exploit the backups, especially monstrous tackle Chris Jones (although he’s yet to record a playoff sack in his career). They can run it efficiently with Isiah Pacheco looking frisky and explosive, and of course they have the unstoppable Travis Kelce at tight end. And K.C., for once, gets to play the underdog card. It’s as dicey as a game gets.

Still, the Bengals have unfinished business to attend to, namely winning the Super Bowl after coming up just short—and with every passing week that loss stings more. Cincinnati unquestionably has the better overall defense, especially in the red zone, and Anarumo has reliably slowed the Chiefs attack even if they can never really be fully stopped. The lack of Tyreek Hill saps the Chiefs of the potential for quick scores that can erase deficits. If Cincinnati can get ahead, as they did in their December matchup, the pressure on a gimpy Mahomes becomes that much greater.

And, of course, we have No. 9. Burrow is the rare player who looks at all the factors going against his team, tangible and intangible, and says, “Is that all you got?” He won’t be intimidated by the crowd, by any Mahomes Miracles, by his makeshift line coming back to earth. Whatever the dilemma, whatever the situation, he’ll make it work. And afterwards, let’s hope he gives us a reprise of the team’s battle cry: We the Big Dogs!!

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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