When the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2023 AFC Championship Game, it will be the fourth time these sides have faced off over a 12-month span. Joe Burrow and Zac Taylor have gotten the better of Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid on the previous three occasions, and have more wins against the Mahomes era Chiefs than anyone else in the NFL.
Three consecutive wins against the Kansas City juggernaut is undoubtedly impressive and may imply dominance, but the reality is that this emerging rivalry has been incredibly close. All three Bengals wins have come by a field goal, and twice they needed to rally from a halftime double-digit deficit. Cincinnati’s only had four offensive possessions while holding a lead, compared to 13 for Kansas City.
But there are a few factors at play that help explain why the Bengals have been able to come out victorious on each occasion, and they all loom large this Sunday.
Cincinnati has won the turnover battle
The Bengals have taken exceptional care of the ball, turning it over only once in three meetings—a Joe Burrow interception in last year’s AFC Championship Game—and the defense held the Chiefs to a three-and-out on the subsequent possession. Meanwhile, Kansas City’s three giveaways couldn’t have been more costly:
2022 AFC Championship: A third quarter Patrick Mahomes interception results in Bengals possession at Kansas City’s 27-yard line. Cincinnati scores a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game at 21-21.
2022 AFC Championship: Another Mahomes interception in overtime gives Cincinnati the ball at their own 45-yard line, and ultimately kick the game-winning field goal.
2022 regular season: Leading 24-20 in the fourth quarter, Travis Kelce loses a fumble and the Bengals gain possession at their own 47-yard line. Cincinnati scores the game-winning touchdown with 8:54 left in regulation.
Turnovers have been a season-long problem for Kansas City in 2022. The Chiefs had a -3 in turnover differential in the regular season, compared to the Bengals’ stellar +6. In postseason play, Cincy’s turnover margin is a staggering +9 dating back to last year.
Cincinnati’s late-game execution has been superior
The fourth quarter (and overtime) has belonged to the Bengals on both sides of the ball. They have outscored the Chiefs 26-6 in the final period, the largest point differential between the two teams in any quarter.
2021 regular season: The Chiefs’ only failure to score a red zone touchdown occurred in the fourth quarter while trailing 31-28. The Bengals got the ball back tied 31-31 with six minutes left, improbably converted a third and 27 shot play to Ja’Marr Chase, and got into field goal range. A crazy sequence of events that included consecutive Chiefs penalties on 4th and goal at the 1-yard line allowed the Bengals, who were trying to score a touchdown to prevent Mahomes from only needing a field goal to force overtime, to instead run the clock down and kick the winning field goal at 0:00.
2022 AFC Championship: Pretty much touched upon in the previous section with Mahomes’ interceptions, but lest we forget Kansas City was five yards away from winning at the end of regulation. The Bengals defense sacked Mahomes twice, causing a fumble on the second sack, and the Chiefs had to settle for overtime.
2022 regular season: In addition to the aforementioned Kelce fumble, Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker missed a game-tying field goal, giving Cincinnati the ball back with 3:19 left. After Kansas City exhausted its timeouts, Joe Burrow converted a third and 5 pass to Ja’Marr Chase, then on the other side of the two-minute warning made a third and 11 throw to Tee Higgins to seal the deal.
Kansas City’s defense has been no match for the Bengals offense
If there’s any indication of one unit dominating the opposition, it’s the Bengals offense against the Chiefs defense. Cincinnati has averaged 421 yards, scoring on 17 of their 27 possessions for an average of 3.26 points per drive. If you take out their end-of-game kneeldown drive at the end of this year’s regular season win they’re scoring at a staggering 65.3% clip. They’ve also converted 17 of 33 third-down attempts and have had an equal or higher Expected Points Added (EPA) per play than Kansas City’s offense in each game.
Joe Burrow has completed 78 of 108 passes (72.2%) for 982 yards, 8 touchdowns (plus 1 rushing), and just 1 interception. Star receiver Ja’Marr Chase has a combined 24 catches for 417 yards and 4 touchdowns, including an obscene 11/266/3 statline in the 2021 regular season encounter. Running backs Semaje Perine and Joe Mixon have had 100+ scrimmage yard performances, and most importantly the offensive line has only allowed two sacks and seven QB hits in the last two games.
Even if Mahomes was healthy, the prevailing question ahead of this Sunday’s matchup should be whether the Chiefs defense can effectively slow down Joe Burrow and company, because up to this point they’ve proven incapable of doing so.
The injury to Mahomes’ ankle will almost certainly impact this year’s AFC title, but up to this point it’s clear that Cincinnati and Kansas City are two well-matched teams with very little to separate them. So far, that “very little” has all been in Cincinnati’s favor. If history is a guide, Mahomes’ ankle be damned, we’re in for another dramatic ending at