While the NFC game features arguably the league's two best defenses, the AFC game is a little different. It also features a pair of top-10 offenses, just like the NFL has encouraged, but both defenses will give up production at times. The over-under of 47 is just a little higher than in the NFC game (currently 45.5), but the gap would be wider if both quarterbacks were fully healthy.
These teams have met three times in the last two seasons, including in the AFC Championship Game a year ago. All have been higher-scoring, all have been close, and the Bengals have won all three: 34-31, 27-24 and 27-24. The same kind of score would be expected this week, but Patrick Mahomes is going to be playing through a high-ankle sprain. That's why a line which opened with Kansas City a slight favorite has now swung the other way, with Cincinnati favored by 1.5 points.
Weather could also be a factor in keeping scoring in check. The early forecast shows temperatures in the low 20s, and winds around 10 mph. Not terrible, but might prove limiting at times for passing games and longer field goals. Just about a 10 percent chance of precipitation, though.
Joe Burrow should finish with the best passing numbers of the week. He's had a great year, averaging 280 passing yards and more than 2 touchdowns per week. (Adding in his 5 rushing scores, he had 40 total in 16 games.) He's a much better passer with a significantly better matchup than either of the NFC quarterbacks, and he's healthier than his opponent. He's faced Kansas City three times and averaged 327 passing yards and 3 TDs (8 passing, 1 rushing) in those contests. And he's facing a defense that ranked just 24th against the pass during the season, allowing 33 touchdowns -- 4 more than any other team. It's as if it played against the likes of Burrow every week, but instead it compiled those numbers while playing half the schedule against the AFC South and NFC West, which mixed in Malik Willis and Bryce Perkins with the Trevor Lawrences of the world.
If there's a concern, it's with his protection up front. Right tackle La'el Collins is on IR, and left tackle Jonah Williams and guard Alex Cappa are also hurt. Neither player practiced on Wednesday. The patchwork line held up fine at Buffalo, but that was an average pass rush during the season whose best player (Von Miller) was hurt. Kansas City had 55 sacks (2nd); Baltimore's 5th-ranked pass rush sacked Burrow 4 times in the wild-card round. A lot more likely this defensive front can cause problems for Burrow than Buffalo's. But Kansas City only got to him once in the regular-season meeting. Our feeling is he'll get the better of them more often. He'll run a little (16 yards per game during the season), including around the goal line, with those 5 touchdowns, one of which came against this opponent. But mostly, it's his passing numbers that should make him a top-2 choice this week.
Joe Mixon is less likely to have a good game. Maybe Kansas City changes things up defensively to try and slow down Burrow, dropping more players into coverage and whatnot, but in general this was a defense that allowed plenty of passing production and not much on the ground. This was the league's 8th-ranked run defense during the season, allowing 107 yards per game and just 10 touchdowns. As discussed last week, it isn't actually that good; it just tended to face fewer rushing attempts, with its high-scoring offense forcing opponents away from the ground game. That seems less likely to happen here, and indeed a week ago Jacksonville's ground game did just fine: 144 yards and a touchdown, its running backs both averaging over 6.0 yards per attempt.
But Cincinnati didn't play that way during the season, ranking 3rd in passing but just 29th in rushing. It ran in 5 touchdowns in a blowout over Carolina, but just 9 in its other 15 games. Cincinnati ran for 152 yards in the regular season win (a game Mixon missed), but about a third of that (46) and the touchdown was by Joe Burrow. And Cincinnati's line isn't as good now.
Mixon still grades out favorably because he's more likely to play close to full-time than the other runners still playing. He'll get the bulk of the carries, and he'll be involved as a receiver. He averaged over 4 catches and 32 yards per game during the season, with 2 TDs, supplementing his 58 rushing yards and 7 TDs on the ground. Samaje Perine, who rushed for 106 yards in the regular season win, will mix in for some carries and chances in the passing game; he had a third as many carries at Buffalo, but caught 5 passes for 31 yards -- makes some sense in deeper PPR leagues. But should play about a third of the time. For overall touches, Mixon still looks like a reasonable option.
JaMarr Chase looks very good. There should be plenty of passing (yards and touchdowns) from the offense, and Chase is the main guy. There was a point where it was closer between him and Tee Higgins, but Chase has pulled away this year. In the 12 games (including the playoffs) that he, Higgins and Tyler Boyd have all played, Chase averages 85 yards with 10 TDs, Higgins averages 60 yards with 6 TDs, and Boyd averages 53 yards with 4 TDs. Chase caught a touchdown on the opening drive at Buffalo and then had a second score overturned on a close replay review. He blew up in the regular season meeting a year ago, catching 11 passes for 266 yards and 3 touchdowns. He's caught 13 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown in the two other games the last two years. And this secondary has given up more production, especially in terms of touchdowns, than last year's.
This is not to rule out the idea of Higgins having a big game. He caught 6 for 103 in last year's playoff meeting, and totaled 9 for 97 with a touchdown in the two regular-season games. But more clearly second fiddle right now. That could potentially lead to lighter coverages, of course, but we're favoring Chase, and Boyd (who averages 4 for 41, with 1 TD, in the three games the last two seasons) is a level below Higgins. Kansas City allowed 20 touchdowns to wide receivers during the season (2nd-most); if Burrow can make it up to 3 TDs, wideouts should catch two of them. Trenton Irwin shouldn't be a factor. He caught 2 TDs at New England a few weeks back, but most of his good games were with another main pass catcher injured -- either one of the top 3 wideouts, or Hayden Hurst. Irwin has caught only 1 pass the first two playoff games.
Kansas City allowed 9 touchdowns to tight ends (5th-most), although it's not a specific weakness (they allowed 4 more touchdown passes, 33, than any other team, recall). Evan Engram (5 for 31) wasn't as productive as Jacksonville's top 2 wideouts last week. Hayden Hurst had a nice year, but if ranking the tight ends still playing 1-4, would be difficult to slot him ahead of any of the others. On the season he averaged 4 catches for 32 yards, with 2 TDs. Kansas City's top-notch pass rush could result in a few extra checkdown options, perhaps. While Hurst caught just 2 passes for 12 yards in the earlier meeting, he was injured early on; might well have been on his way to a 6-catch type of outing.
Like the other kickers still playing, Evan McPherson has a lesser matchup. Only four teams allowed fewer field goals during the season than Kansas City (23). Two of those teams are still playing, though, and we like the Bengals offense a little more than the other three teams playing this week. Would be nice if McPherson himself had a better season, making just 83 percent of his field goals and going just 40 of 44 on extra points.
By Friday, we should have a better idea as to the potential of the Bengals Defense. It's facing a quarterback dealing with an ankle injury, which looks promising, but Patrick Mahomes avoided a major injury -- he was able to practice fully on Wednesday, and looked fine walking off the podium after the press conference -- no limp, no walking boot. Setting that aside, Cincinnati ranked 3rd in takeaways (24) among the teams still playing, and last in sacks (just 30, 4th-worst during the season). Mahomes threw 12 interceptions but took only 26 sacks during the season; if that ankle is more or less OK, unlikely Cincinnati comes away with above-average takeaway or (especially) sack totals. Cincinnati had just 1 defensive touchdown during the season (then a huge one against Baltimore in the wild-card round), while Kansas City didn't allow any of those scores.
Next: Kansas City.