With the score tied at 31, the Bengals faced a third-and-27 from their 41-yard line with less than four minutes remaining. The best-case scenario at that point seemed to be a long field goal and a three-point lead for the Bengals. But that would give Patrick Mahomes plenty of time to drive for the tying or winning score.
Except Chase came through -- as he had all game -- with a big play to ruin the Chiefs' day. The Chiefs blitzed seven players, leaving Charvarius Ward alone to cover Chase, and Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow had time to make a well-placed throw.
Ward was in decent position and his fingers grazed the ball, but he couldn't prevent Chase from making a better play and grabbing the pass for a 30-yard gain. First down, Bengals run down the clock and bang in a winning field goal.
266 yards on the DEY for Ja'Marr. That's a team record for receiving yards in a game.— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) January 2, 2022
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Mahomes never got a chance with the ball again. Chase finished with 11 catches for 266 yards, the latter being the 16th most ever by a receiver in an NFL game. He had catches of 72, 69, 35 and 30 yards, the first two for touchdowns.
The Chiefs and Bengals meet again on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium (3 p.m. ET, CBS), with Cincinnati looking to get another big game from Chase -- or one of its other talented receivers -- and Kansas City trying to prevent it.
"We'll have to play that cat-and-mouse game," Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "As dynamic as Ja'Marr Chase is, there are certainly some other weapons there as well."
How did Chase do it?
What happened against the Chiefs and against the Tennessee Titans in last week's divisional round of the NFL playoffs wasn't new for Chase.
Perhaps that's why he didn't sound too surprised when he found out he had broken yet another receiving record during his debut season. With five catches for 109 yards in the win over the Titans, he became the first rookie in NFL history with multiple 100-yard receiving games in the playoffs.
When he learned of the feat, he uttered a simple one-word response: "Awesome."
Even though Tennessee tried to take Chase out of the game, Bengals coach Zac Taylor was able to manufacture targets for Chase that turned into big plays. Before Sunday's game against Kansas City, Chase said it's "hard not to believe" he will be the key target against the reigning AFC champions.
Chase said he expects a good amount of zone defense, with two safeties splitting up the back of the formation. But he knows any early plans will likely change throughout the game.
"It's really about adjusting on the fly once the game time comes," Chase said.
The fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft is a major reason why the Bengals fielded one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. Cincinnati led the NFL in yards per attempt (8.1). During the regular season, Chase was third in the league in catches of 20 or more yards, trailing only Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp and the San Francisco 49ers' Deebo Samuel.
Even if Kansas City plays a lot of zone coverage, which is what teams have tried to employ in order to slow down Chase and quarterback Joe Burrow, the rapport between the two LSU teammates could be a big factor -- as it was in the Week 17 win over Kansas City.
"They took advantage of some one-on-one opportunities," Taylor said. "There was accurate throws and coverage awareness and Ja'Marr made some really great plays. They were on the same page against some of the zone coverages."
Said Spagnuolo: "One of the things we found out first hand is that their quarterback and that receiver really work well together. They know each other from their time together at LSU and it makes a difference. You can see it in the confidence and the way they play. Those two are a dynamic duo, no doubt about it."
Cincinnati's receiving corps isn't limited to the standout rookie. Second-year player Tee Higgins had more than 1,000 yards in just 14 games this season. Slot receiver Tyler Boyd finished the season with 828 yards and has been a key target for Cincinnati's offense the past few years.
"This game, I'm not quite sure how they would try to play us because I mean, we done seen almost every coverage," Boyd said. "A lot of teams try to do a lot of different things to [neutralize] us because we have so many weapons."
But as Kansas City learned in the first game against Cincinnati, Chase is perhaps the most dangerous one and must be accounted for.
"It's like he went to a different level," Awuzie said. "All the tools, everything was there, but I think he's just exploded. And every game, it seems that he's gotten really better."
How do the Chiefs stop him?
Chase should look larger than life to the Chiefs after his big game against them in December. Coach Andy Reid said Chase's ability to extend to make catches was a problem for the Chiefs, and that the 6-foot Chase plays bigger.
"He knows how to set up routes, especially for a young guy," Reid said. "Then he's strong when he gets the ball in his hands. He's got great core strength and lower body strength and quick feet to go with it. So he's the complete package. He's one of those guys that isn't 6-foot-4 but plays like he's 6-foot-4. He's got great range."
The Chiefs frequently had one or more players around Chase on his catches but still couldn't get the job done. The Chiefs missed several tackles, and linebacker Nick Bolton said improvement in that area is a priority this time around.
"We didn't execute the way we wanted to," Bolton said. "We didn't tackle well. That's something we can clean up on our side, tackling better and making plays out there in space."
The Chiefs did a nice job in the divisional round covering the Buffalo Bills' leading wide receiver, Stefon Diggs. He caught 103 passes in the regular season but had three catches for seven yards with a long gain of five yards against the Chiefs.
But one of his teammates, Gabriel Davis, avoided coverage against the Chiefs well enough to have a Chase-like game. Davis caught eight passes for 201 yards and four touchdowns.
The same type of thing could happen for the Bengals if the Chiefs overcompensate in coverage on Chase, with all of the talented receivers on Cincinnati's roster.
"It's not like they have one weapon and you commit two people to him and you're home free," Spagnuolo said. "They're all capable of wrecking the game. We've got to pay attention to all three of them. The quarterback knows where to go with the ball. He's sharp enough to know that if you're taking one of his guys away, he's going to go someplace else."