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2021 NFL playoffs: What we learned from Bengals' win over Chiefs in AFC Championship Game

Cincinnati Bengals
2021 · 10-7-0
Kansas City Chiefs
2021 · 12-5-0


  1. The Comeback Kids send Bengals to the Super Bowl. Down 21-3 midway through the second quarter, the Bengals didn't blink. Joe Burrow began to hit his stride, the defense clamped down on Patrick Mahomes, and Cincinnati came flying back to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. Once K.C. forced overtime, Burrow continued to show ice water in his veins, finding Tee Higgins for a big first down to move into field goal range. Five runs later, rookie kicker Evan McPherson sent the Bengals to their first Super Bowl since the 1988 season where they'll face the Los Angeles Rams. Burrow was poised all day, taking just one sack and wiggling out of several others to scramble for big first downs. The second-year QB made the plays late that Mahomes didn't. When K.C. took away his deep shot, Burrow calmly hit crossers and screens for chunk gains. Between Burrow making pinpoint passes and running back Joe Mixon churning out yards, the Bengals' offense was the one moving the ball in the second half with the game on the line. Burrow became just the third QB in NFL history to have multiple game-winning drives in a single postseason in one of his first two career seasons. The other two: Tom Brady in 2001 and Kurt Warner in 1999. Both won the Super Bowl.
  2. Chiefs offense picks a bad time to take a nap. Much like Aesop's Hare, K.C. sprinted out to a big lead, scoring touchdowns on its first three possessions to go up, 21-3. The Chiefs' first four possessions went for 84, 75, 72 and 80 yards. After the halftime break, the offense never woke up. Its first five possessions of the third and fourth quarters went for 34 total yards and just two first downs with a Mahomes interception. After looking dazzling early, Mahomes struggled to find open receivers and took four big sacks. The offense going in the tank looked eerily similar to the second-half output in the Week 17 loss in Cincinnati. There was zero rhythm, and early-down runs put K.C. behind the chains. The Chiefs looked like they woke up on the final drive getting it to first-and-goal from the 5-yard-line, but two Mahomes sacks forced a long field goal to force overtime. After winning another coin toss, Mahomes sent an arm-punt towards Tyreek Hill that was intercepted. Mahomes' last play of the season was an INT. The Chiefs will be kicking themselves all offseason for not squashing the upstart Bengals when they had the chance.
  3. Bengals secondary shines once again. The Cincinnati defense is unheralded no more. After flying under the radar all season, the Bengals' defense played lights out on a big stage. The secondary was smothering in the second half, not giving Mahomes an inch of daylight to make a play. At times the QB sat in the pocket and sat, and sat and sat and sat. Still, no one came open. That's the type of coverage that Cincy used to suffocate a potent K.C. offense. The Bengals secondary didn't allow a single second-half reception to the star receiver Hill. Making the Chiefs play one-handed like that is something few defenses can accomplish. Safety Jessie Bates tipping a deep shot to Hill for a Vonn Bell interception in overtime exemplified the type of lockdown play the back end sported in critical spots this season. The Bengals dropped eight-plus defenders on a season-high 35% of pass plays, per Next Gen Stats, holding Mahomes to just 7 of 13 for 59 yards, an INT and two sacks on such plays.
  4. The Bengals offense is more than just Ja'Marr Chase. With the Chiefs intent on doubling the dynamic rookie, Burrow looked elsewhere early. Higgins again stepped into that void, killing the Chiefs defense over the middle. Higgins went for 108 yards on six catches. When Burrow needed a big play, he often looked Higgins' way, and the receiver delivered. Cincy proved that even if Chase is slowed for stretches and the explosive player is negated, they have the weapons to take advantage of other coverages. Yes, Chase is the most explosive talent, but the Bengals are more than a one-trick offense. Take away those big plays, and Burrow will find another way to move the chains.
  5. Not getting points at end of first half dooms Chiefs. On its fourth drive of the game, up 21-10, K.C. drove the ball down the field, 80 yards to the 1-yard-line, with ease. But with zero timeouts left and just five seconds on the clock, Mahomes threw an ill-advised pass to Hill behind the line of scrimmage. Hill was tackled in the field of play to end the half with added points. Even a field goal would have been a big difference for K.C. entering halftime. Instead, the flub gave Cincy life. For as magical as Mahomes played up to that point, the mental error was a brutal mistake. After that play, the offense never seemed to recover.

NFL Research: No team in NFL history had overcome a halftime deficit of 10-plus points to win in multiple games against the same opponent in a single season (including playoffs). The Bengals trailed K.C. by 11 at halftime in Week 17 (won 34-31) and trailed by 11 at halftime of the AFC Championship Game (won 27-24 in OT).


Next Gen stat of the game: Joe Burrow was 14 of 19 for 112 yards and two touchdowns on quick passes; 18 of 28, 210 yards, 2 TDs when not under pressure; and 5 of 10, 40 yards, INT when under pressure (sacked once). 

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