Road to the Super Bowl: How the Bengals Can Beat the Chiefs in the AFC Championship
Usually, a trip to the Super Bowl earns a team some respect. Not so in the Bengals’ case this year. The Bills were the consensus favorite in the AFC. The Chiefs right behind them. And as a matter of fact, the Bengals were underdogs in their divisional round matchup with the Bills last week. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has been using that disrespect as fuel all season.
“I take whatever I can get,” Taylor said. “Twenty weeks in, I’m absolutely looking for anything. Week 1 is easy. Week 20? You’ll take anything you can get. And I’ll search every inch of the internet to get it.”
After a dominating victory over the Bills in their house last week, people are starting to give the Bengals their flowers. But Zac Taylor’s group is way past that.
“They gotta play us.”
That’s what defensive assistant Mark Duffner reminded the Bengals after a 20-16 victory over the Titans on November 27. That was win No. 3 on an eventual eight-game winning streak they would end the season on en route to a second straight AFC North title.
Now the Bengals are looking for a second straight AFC Championship. They’ll have to return to the scene of last season’s upset victory over the Chiefs. They’ll have to do it at Arrowhead again. And they’ll have to beat Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs … again.
But as far as the Bengals are concerned, it’s the Chiefs that should be worried. After all, they have to play the Bengals.
If the Bengals have taught us anything, it’s that the best defense is adaptable.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo put together a gem of a game plan against the Bills last week. He’ll have to do it again this week. But that’s okay, because he’ll likely borrow from his own game plan against the Chiefs in Week 13.
In that matchup, the Bengals held Mahomes to one of his lowest offensive outputs. Much of it due to a drop-eight defense that Anarumo deployed.
Here’s a drop eight disguised as a five-man rush from Week 13:
You can see that Cincinnati has Mahomes’ receivers covered, and they get to Mahomes for a sack with a three-man pressure.
Here’s a freeze frame of another:
Everything is covered, and you can see the three-man rush getting home again. This isn’t simple, and it’s not by accident. Kansas City has a terrific offensive line. However, Cincinnati’s defensive line is dynamic.
But it’s not just drop eights that will help Cincinnati get to Mahomes. In last week’s victory over the Bills, Anarumo dialed up off-ball blitzes to throw off Josh Allen and Buffalo’s offensive line.
Watch Von Bell come on a blitz from the right while Cam Sample drops into coverage on the opposite side of the field:
That’s the thing. If you’ve watched any Bengals tape, you’ll notice that the defensive game plan differs each week. The only thing that doesn’t change is that it’s tailored to the opposing quarterback.
The Bengals didn’t lead the NFL in any defensive categories this season. But their adaptability has been their strongest suit. Lou Anarumo and his ever-changing scheme have allowed the Bengals to keep opponents confused long enough to outlast them.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals take what’s given and make their opponents pay for it.
The plan for Mahomes will only be half the battle. Good thing for the Bengals; they feel pretty good about the other half.
Burrow proved in the Buffalo game that he has elite IQ and processing speeds at the line of scrimmage, both pre and post-snap. I counted at least eight plays on Sunday where you could hear Burrow “can” the original call at the line of scrimmage.
I showed you guys a play last week where Burrow canned a call at the line when he noticed Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen was in zone coverage. He exploited the zone by nailing Hayden Hurst inside the hashes after he wrapped behind Queen. When I rewatched the Bengals-Chiefs game from Week 13 earlier this week, I found a nearly identical play.
Here Burrow spots Willie Gay and Joshua Williams in zone. He’s got Hurst and Chase running a switch release, with Hurst running a flag to the middle and Chase running a flat to the sideline.
Now in motion:
Oh, that ball was in Burrow’s hands for precisely 1.8 seconds. 1.8, folks. That’s elite processing speed. The point here is Cincinnati’s offense can beat you in multiple ways.
Burrow and the Bengals offense has adjusted. They no longer live and die on go balls down the sideline for Ja’Marr Chase. Instead, Cincinnati has become a team that works inside-out in the short and intermediate passing game, taking their shots when they arise.
Here’s a sequence of plays on the opening drive that highlight the inside-out offense leading to a chunk play:
We’ve got a six-yard completion to Ja’Marr Chase just outside the hashes, a five-yard run by Joe Mixon to the right hashes, and then they attack outside with Tyler Boyd running a deep flag to the sideline.
Boyd makes the grab for a 23-yard gain. Middle, middle, out … three plays, two first downs, 34 yards. Take what’s there, then get the chunk play.
On the next drive, the Bengals do it again; this time, they do something similar to the play I showed you from the Kansas City game, where they line Hurst and Chase up together on the right side of the field. Chase runs a quick comeback and throws his arms up. Three Buffalo defenders bite, including the safety. Meanwhile, Hurst is gone for the easy six.
Cincinnati was mixing and matching so well; Buffalo had no shot on this play:
This was the Bengals offense all day against the Bills:
In the end, it will be Cincinnati’s variations and Joe Burrow’s ability to read and react that will be the difference in this game.
Much like with their Defense, adaptability has been their biggest strength this season.
But the Bengals didn’t lose the ability to go downfield. They still have three wide receivers that would be No. 1’s on a handful of teams on the field. Instead, Cincinnati learned to take what was there. After watching defenses drop back for the first month of the season to try to take away the deep ball that was so popular last season, the Bengals adjusted.
On Wednesday, Joe Burrow called Zac Taylor and his staff the best in the league at making adjustments. That adjustment has helped the Bengals not lose since Halloween. So, if Kansas City wants to get exotic with their pressures, I’m sure Taylor and the Bengals will have an answer downfield for that.
If Cincinnati can minimize the damage that Mahomes can do when the Chiefs have the ball, all they’ll have to do is keep on doing what they’ve been doing on offense.