Face It: The Bengals Own K.C.

Now if they can just figure out a way to beat the dreadful Cleveland Browns, the division title might be in hand again.

That’s three. Do I hear four? Sunday’s 27-24 victory over Kansas City was—as you no doubt fully know—Cincinnati’s third win over Pat Mahomes and the “Dynasty” Chiefs in this calendar year. Amazing as that is, all three have felt fully earned.

If anything, Sunday’s score flattered K.C. The Bengals had a rare botch inside the red zone at the end of the first half, and Tyler Boyd had an even rarer drop of a sure touchdown pass. I will go to my grave believing Mahomes didn’t score on that goal line dunk when he fumbled millimeters before crossing the plane. There was a version of this game that ended 35-17.

But the reality was plenty good anyway. Another thriller, another W, and suddenly the national chattering classes are realizing that Joe Burrow is an MVP candidate, Lou Anarumo is a 2023 head coaching candidate, the Bengals are a legit contender to repeat as AFC champs, and Cincinnati is the long-awaited rival to K.C. hegemony. If the Broncos and Russell Wilson (whom I’ve never loathed more) could have done any damn thing on offense, they would have beaten the impotent Ravens and Cincinnati would be in first place in the division. Maybe this week….

Sunday provided a fascinating matchup of amorphous pigskin amoebas—we know what Big Lou does with his week-to-week defensive game plans, and Mahomes is an underrated changeling. We think of him entirely as the Jordan-esque athletic marvel we’ve come to know, but he is extremely coachable and egoless and has undergone multiple evolutions in his career. This season he’s put the Tyreek Hill trade behind him by becoming a checkdown machine and embracing short passes and YAC while mostly eschewing the mad bomber style that defined him in years past.

Once again, however, Anarumo beat him, though not as dramatically as in the two second halves from last season. But on the key play of the game, the third down in Bengals territory with Cincinnati nursing the three-point lead, the defense came with a disguised pressure that Mahomes hadn’t seen before. Joseph Ossai made it work by flushing and then chasing down the mercurial QB, forcing a missed field goal. The Chiefs never saw the ball again.

That they didn’t was due to the fact that, for the third straight week, the Bengals controlled the ball in a situation where a sustained drive would end the game, thanks to Burrow. The drive from the shadow of their end zone in Pittsburgh. The one that ended the game in Tennessee (a penalty on special teams was crucial, true). And this time via third down conversions when Burrow poured an extra bucket of ice into his veins. The degree of difficulty on that third-and-11 throw to Tee Higgins was so far off the charts it was Terra Incognito.

Just imagine if Cincinnati was still putting Andy Dalton out there in those situations. Not to crap on Big Red, but he makes that play zero out of 100 times. With Burrow, it was expected he would make it—your eyes popped on how amazing it was, but not in surprise that he pulled it off.

The chances of a letdown game this Sunday would be extremely high if it weren’t for the opponent. Cleveland is our Kryponite, and the Browns have thrown Super Joe into the swimming pool in every matchup since Burrow entered the league (original Superman and Christopher Reeve reference, young ’uns, look it up!). Back on Halloween, the Browns crushed Cincinnati 32-13 in a game that feels like it happened as long ago as the premiere of the original Superman movie.

For one thing, the ridiculously short suspension levied at Cleveland’s sex offender/quarterback, Deshaun Watson, has ended, and he will be behind center in the Jungle. He predictably was a rusty mess in his first game since 2020 last week in Houston, the scene of the crime, though the Texans are so egregiously bad the Browns were able to win regardless. Hard to know what sort of Watson appears this weekend, though he can’t possibly be as bad again—although hope springs eternal. But he likely won’t be as efficient as Jacoby Brissett was for Cleveland.

Quarterback aside (and even Baker Mayfield played well against us), Cleveland’s mastery of the Bengals has basically come down to two players: Nick Chubb and Myles Garrett. The Bengals have a hard time tackling the former and blocking the latter. Cincinnati’s run defense took a hit against the Chiefs after a sensational outing in Nashville, not surprising given the difference in the two passing attacks and how much the Bengals could sell out to stop Derrick Henry. Right now they’re 16th in the NFL in rush defense DVOA, and only Josh Jacobs ranks ahead of Chubb in Football Outsiders metrics. Anarumo will have to switch gears once again and go back to keying on the run.

As for Garrett, he’s hit double-digits in sacks for the fifth straight year, though he’s a bit off his usual top 1 percent of the league standard (probably due to nearly dying in a car crash earlier in the season). He has devoured left tackle Jonah Williams in prior encounters. Look for Cincinnati to go to a ground heavy attack to mitigate Garrett’s pass rush.

The Bengals are running with far higher efficiency, a huge positive. Samaje Perine filled in admirably (155 yards from scrimmage) once again for the concussed Joe Mixon against K.C. Don’t look now, but Cincinnati’s O-line ranks higher in Adjusted Line Yards than the mighty Browns line (12th vs. 14th), and overall the Bengals are seventh in rushing DVOA. Cincinnati has piled up yards on the ground in the past, but they’ve never been anywhere close to this kind of efficiency in the run game. It will be interesting to see if Mixon (assuming he escapes the concussion protocol at last) brings even more juice to the attack with his fresh legs.

As we’ve discussed here many times, the schedule down the stretch provides no breathers. But the refrain “They gotta play us!” has become a hot catchphrase around Cincinnati for a reason. The team is rounding into an elite form at the right time and is light years better than at this point last season. There is little margin for error, but the initial worry—just making the playoffs—has lightened: The Bengals have a 93.2 percent chance of postseason football, higher than the Ravens’ total, although Baltimore is still slightly favored to win the AFC North. Now they can concentrate on chasing bigger game, such as the top seeds. We know they can win at Arrowhead Stadium in January, but it would be nice to not have to prove it again.

But if it comes to K.C. Encounter No. 4, will you really bet against Joey B?

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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