For the second straight season, the road to the Super Bowl will run through Kansas City in the AFC. And for the second straight season, the Bengals will be the ones looking to keep the Chiefs from making another big-game appearance. A year after edging Patrick Mahomes and Co. to face the Rams in Super Bowl LVI, Cincinnati enters this year's AFC Championship Game with lots of momentum. Whereas Mahomes is nursing an ankle injury after edging the Jaguars, Joe Burrow and his squad are fresh off a rout of the high-powered Bills, making Sunday's anticipated rematch a true tossup for oddsmakers.
We already know both teams are talented, considering they're the last two standing in the AFC. But which one has the early edge on paper? Here's a position-by-position assessment:
Bengals: Joe Burrow
Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes
Talk about a matchup! Mahomes has the benefit of experience, with five straight AFC title bids and two Super Bowl appearances under his belt. He's also better suited for off-script acrobatics, setting the standard as a big-play artist in and outside of structure. But his high ankle sprain puts a big question mark on his mobility. Burrow, meanwhile, isn't just a proven winner in the face of K.C.'s firepower, owning a 3-0 record against Mahomes. He's quickly cementing himself as this generation's Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, showcasing near-flawless vision and touch in crunch time. Call it a dead-even draw.
Mixon is the best traditional ball-carrier of the group, and his explosive turn against the Bills helped offset worries from a quiet late-year stretch. But the Chiefs' one-two punch of Pacheco and McKinnon is probably equally, if not more, dangerous in space. At his best, the latter has been a legitimate safety valve for Mahomes this year. Unsexy as it may be, this is another tie.
K.C.'s group has been better than expected: Smith-Schuster has been a solid possession target on the outside, and Toney is coming on as a speedy alternative. But there's just no denying Cincy's star power: Chase is such a fluid downfield threat when healthy, and Higgins remains supremely underrated for the athleticism he offers at his size (6-4, 220).
Hurst may have posted career marks as a reliable short-area target for Burrow if not for injuries, but this one's not even a question: Kelce, at 33, is still squarely in his prime. Fresh off a 14-catch showcase against the Jaguars, he has a legitimate case to be called the Chiefs' co-MVP alongside Mahomes. Few players find ways to be so consistently wide open in space.
Unless left tackle Jonah Williams returns from a kneecap injury, Cincy will likely be without three of its regular starters for a second straight matchup, with Alex Cappa and La'el Collins also banged up. The reserves certainly stepped up in snowy Buffalo to pave the way for a big rushing attack, but all in all, K.C. still boasts the more formidable front. At their best, Brown, Thuney and Humphrey are all Pro Bowl-level blockers.
Both contenders' defensive fronts are anchored by massive but athletic anchors in Reader (6-3, 335) and Jones (6-6, 310). Hill and Saunders have been solid running mates for the Bengals and Chiefs, respectively, but it's those big boys who command most of the attention. Reader has overcome injuries to remain a force against the run. But Jones' upside collapsing the pocket, with 15.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss and a whopping 29 QB hits, gives K.C. the slight advantage here.
After another relatively quiet regular season, Clark appears to be coming on at the right time for the Chiefs, getting after Trevor Lawrence alongside Chris Jones in K.C.'s playoff kickoff. And Dunlap, the ex-Bengal, has playoff experience. But Cincy, despite totaling fewer sacks than all but three NFL teams this year, has two more consistent, relentless edge rushers in Hendrickson and Hubbard, who've combined for 48 QB hits, including playoffs, to give Lou Anarumo's defense some bite up front.
Bolton, 22, looks like a real find as the unofficial QB of K.C.'s "D," logging a whopping 180 tackles to go with two picks and two sacks this year. But the duo of Wilson and Pratt has been paramount to the Bengals' physical push toward another AFC title game; they've combined for 130+ solo tackles, 14 pass deflections and nine tackles for loss as multi-level warriors.
Cincy's coverage unit is often carried by the versatility and physicality of Hilton, who acts more like a defensive Swiss Army knife than traditional corner. Their secondary also gets more from the back end. In K.C., meanwhile, Sneed has gradually elevated his game as a shadow on No. 1 wideouts, staying around the ball (11 pass deflections, three INTs, 3.5 sacks); and youngsters like McDuffie and Watson have mostly held their own when asked.
Swap any one of these starters, and you'd probably get similar results. True to form, Bates has teamed up with Bell to remain a steady takeaway threat, combining for eight picks in Cincy, whereas Reid and Thornhill have emerged more recently during the Chiefs' secondary upswing, doing a bit more work up front with a combined 150+ tackles, six tackles for loss and six QB hits.
McPherson has been a bit spottier than in his 2021 debut, especially on extra points, but he's been perfect on 50+ yard field goals. Butker, meanwhile, has seen a more dramatic dip from years past while battling injuries, entering with a career-low 75% field goal conversion rate. But he hit a pair of 50-yarders against the Jaguars, and his teammate, Townsend, is one of the game's best punters, averaging more than 50 yards per kick. Chrisman has been solid, too, pinning opponents inside their own 20 on almost half (48.5%) of his kicks.
Bengals: Zac Taylor (HC), Brian Callahan (OC), Lou Anarumo (DC)
Chiefs: Andy Reid (HC), Eric Bieniemy (OC), Steve Spagnuolo (DC)
For all the flak he's gotten for his pre-Joe Burrow record, and his predictable play-calling in Super Bowl LVI, Taylor has successfully shepherded another clutch Bengals offense. Even better, Anarumo has gotten the best of Cincy's "D," weathering injuries to bewilder even the best of them. Still, Reid's contingent has been there, done that, for longer. Spagnuolo often knows when to dial up the pressure, as he did to keep the Chiefs afloat despite Mahomes' injury against Jacksonville. And Big Red himself, even with time-management issues, remains as creative and playful as ever when his team has the ball.
Bengals advantages: 3
Chiefs advantages: 5
There you have it. With a quartet of even decisions, you can easily see how this would lean back to the Bengals' side. For now, we like the Chiefs when you factor in every position across both sides of the ball. And yet what's especially intriguing about the breakdown is the fact that one of the even decisions comes at the most important spot, where a real case can be made that Cincy deserves the advantage, with Burrow unbeaten against the Chiefs and Mahomes' injury-related limitations unknown. All in all, this one's tight, as predicted. And it should make for yet another nail-biting showdown on Sunday.