A VICTORIOUS Joe Burrow walked across the field earlier this month to smack palms with Patrick Mahomes, and the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback offered five prophetic words that made Burrow smile.
“See you in the playoffs.”
Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals (12-7) hit the road for the American Football Conference (AFC) Championship game on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium with Mahomes and the Chiefs (14-5) riding high following a 42-36 overtime win over the Buffalo Bills in the divisional playoffs.
“We play really good on the road,” a red-nosed Burrow, replete with stocking cap and sweatshirt, said before on Wednesday’s frigid practice of the team’s 6-3 road record this season. “You want to get out to a strong start. You can’t let a team like this get out in front of you. They put a lot of pressure on you on defense.”
Cincinnati has the only win over the Chiefs since Oct. 24 and Burrow passed for 446 yards and four scores. He was sacked four times.
“These young quarterbacks are great for this league and he’s one of them,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said of Burrow. “He’s a heckuva football player. He does a nice job. He’s a coach’s kid that knows the game and kind of gets it.”
Perhaps the biggest health concern on either team is Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu. He missed practice on Wednesday and remains in concussion protocol, but Reid said there’s a chance he’ll be on the field Thursday.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said the Bengals plan to spend “a lot of time” working on protection of Burrow. He was hit 13 times at Tennessee and sacked five times in the first half alone. Taylor said noise at Arrowhead comes with the territory, and the peripheral complications — silent counts, Burrow calling plays due to headset challenges — aren’t easy to replicate in practice.
“Arrowhead is pretty loud,” Mahomes said. “I don’t think you can get around that. I’m sure it’ll be pretty loud this weekend. They’re coming in trying to win a big football game. But I’m glad we’re at Arrowhead and we’re able to use our crowd to our advantage in trying to get a win.”
Burrow offers mostly a pained smirk when the prospect of being cast as the underdog bubbles up again for the Bengals. The Jan. 2 win over Kansas City has been a confidence-building rallying cry since the 34-31 win in Ohio. Rookie first-round pick Ja’Marr Chase was fourth in the National Football League (NFL) with 1,455 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Chase set career bests with 11 receptions for 266 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas City in the Week 17 clash.
Chase said he “didn’t watch” last week’s game to study how the Chiefs handled Gabriel Davis of the Bills, who exploded for 201 yards and four TDs, while Buffalo’s No. 1 receiver Stefon Diggs had three catches for seven yards plus a two-point conversion pass.
“They’re a great defense, they’re a great secondary,” Chase said on Wednesday.
But familiarity is a two-way street. Mahomes gets another look at the Bengals defense, too, playing in his fourth straight conference title game. He’s 8-2 in the playoffs with 25 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“It’s hard to beat a team twice,” Bengals safety Vonn Bell said. “Especially that caliber, those guys are always in the postseason, the Super Bowl. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
A win would put the Bengals in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1988 (SB XXIII). Kansas City is the first team to host four consecutive NFL conference championship games. A Chiefs’ victory puts the franchise in elite company with three others who have played in three consecutive Super Bowls (Miami Dolphins, 1971-73), Buffalo Bills (1990-93) and New England Patriots (2016-18).
“I’ve been in some of these situations before, I’ve been in some big games… I know what it takes to go out there and find a way to win,” Mahomes said. “I think preparation and experience helps me in those situations.”
In his playoff career, including LSU, Burrow is 6-0 with a 69.7 completion percentage, 22 touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s 2-0 in the NFL playoffs, beating the Raiders and Titans despite being sacked 11 times this postseason. He’s the first No. 1 overall draft pick to start in a conference championship game within his first two seasons. — Reuters