Bengals had Chiefs' number in 2021, can they beat them again Sunday?

CINCINNATI — If any team was going to prove the Cincinnati Bengals weren’t cut out for greatness in 2021, it was the Kansas City Chiefs.

Kansas City, led by star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, played in the previous three AFC championship games and continues to be considered one of the best teams in the NFL. On two different occasions last season, the Chiefs were on the verge of blowing out the Bengals in high-stakes games.

Both times, Cincinnati buckled but never folded. In Week 17 and in the AFC championship game, the Bengals came back from deficits to beat Kansas City, with the latter game sending the franchise to its first Super Bowl since 1989.

In beating Kansas City, Cincinnati has done one of the most elusive things in the NFL. Since 2020, 10 teams have played Kansas City at least twice. The Bengals are the only franchise to go undefeated. And the game has quietly turned into a budding rivalry as they prepare to square off this Sunday at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).

“They've got a great history in November and December and have won a lot of football games,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said on Monday. “Our guys are up for the challenge and we're excited for the opportunity.”

“All we needed was a spark”

When Cincinnati faced Kansas City for the first time last season, the Bengals were riding a two-game winning streak in December. With a win, the Bengals were positioned to win the AFC North and clinch their first playoff berth since 2015.

That day, the Bengals leaned on the combination that transformed their season -- quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.

Chase set the franchise record with 266 receiving yards, with his biggest catch coming on a third-and-27 late in the third quarter when Burrow -- facing a seven-man rush -- found him down the sideline.

The rematch in the AFC championship game four weeks later followed a different script. Cincinnati’s pass protection had become a liability, surrendering nine sacks in the AFC divisional playoff win against the Tennessee Titans.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals ran their offense from under center 12% more than they did in the first game against Kansas City. And running back Joe Mixon had more yards from scrimmage (115) than Chase (54).

At one point, Cincinnati trailed 21-3 with less than two minutes left until halftime before running back Samaje Perine provided the jolt. Perine caught a screen pass, made a defender miss and scored on a 41-yard touchdown run.

“It didn't matter who it came from, all we needed was a spark,” Perine recalled to ESPN 10 months later. “Once we got that spark, we were off to the races.”

The key to both victories was stopping Mahomes.

In both games against Kansas City last season, the Bengals surrendered touchdowns early and faced a big deficit. On both occasions, Cincinnati kept Mahomes without a touchdown after halftime.

The defensive game plans featured different strategies from defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. In the Week 17 game, Cincinnati played zone on 73% of Mahomes’ dropbacks, per ESPN Stats & Info. Four weeks later, that number dropped to 52.2%.

“You have to try and keep him off-balance at the plate if you want to look at it as a baseball analogy,” Anarumo said. “Because if they see fastball and get fastball, it’s going a long way.”

Because Kansas City and Cincinnati were division winners in 2021, they were guaranteed a meeting in the regular season. The Bengals are looking to do something no team has done since 2019 -- win three games against Mahomes.

In the week leading up to the big game for both clubs, Cincinnati has downplayed the history between the two teams.

“It's two different seasons,” Taylor said. “At this point in the year, we'll go through and be aware of how those games played out and what things they did, and they'll do the same things with us.”

Each quarterback is also playing at a high level. Mahomes and Burrow are first and second, respectively, in the NFL in passing touchdowns. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first time in the last 30 seasons that the two players leading the league in that category have squared off after Week 13.

While the bulk of the pre-game conversation will center on Mahomes and Burrow, Burrow pointed out they will not be directly playing each other.

“That's how the media likes to spin it and it creates energy for the game and anticipation,” Burrow said. “Each quarterback is going against the defense, and when you have two quarterbacks like that, it's great for the game and great for fans to watch high-level quarterback play.”

Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd compared the matchup to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

When asked about which one is which, Boyd pointed to the stat that highlights the separation between the teams as they approach the end of 2022.

“Whoever got the most wins, there you go.”