“If only he hadn’t gotten hurt!”
I’ve been saying that ever since Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes suffered an ankle sprain in last week’s playoff game. I hate to see injuries taint outcomes. I especially dislike playoff game casualties that drastically alter competitive balance.
But when a top-seed almost loses an MVP caliber quarterback to a high ankle sprain—it makes things that much harder to calculate and accept.
Yes, Mahomes returned and led the Chiefs to a pair of second half scores. But the mobility and elusiveness that are critical to his unique style and success were both limited at best—which means K-C’s offense will most certainly not be at full strength this weekend against Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Some say it won’t matter anyway. They’ll point out the Bengals beat Kansas City the last three times the teams played with a healthy Mahomes, including two games in calendar year 2022, the first one back in January for the AFC title and a berth in Super Bowl LVI (56).
I, for one, have underestimated Cincinnati passer Joe Burrow for the last time. This 26-year-old stud has returned from a serious knee injury to blossom into one of the NFL’s great quarterbacks. He takes lots of hits in the pocket and fumbles occasionally, but he and the Bengals win far more often than they lose—ten in a row, in fact, coming into this weekend.
His chemistry with former LSU teammate and current Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase can frustrate the best NFL defensive backs. No QB/WR tandem in the NFL is playing better this time of year. Just ask the Buffalo Bills.
In a Buffalo snowstorm, in a game I expected the Bill’s defense to dominate, Burrow completed his first nine passes, including a perfectly arched toss to Chase for a 28 yard touchdown. Eight minutes later, Burrow’s second TD pass made it 14-smoke—and the Bills failed to present a serious challenge the rest of the way.
Cincinnati’s banged-up offensive line allowed just a single sack and blew open holes for Joe Mixon to rush for 105 yards. Cincinnati’s defensive front badgered Buffalo QB Josh Allen all day and did not allow a TD pass, only the second team in two years to accomplish this feat. (The Jets have done it twice!)
Credit for this second accomplishment goes to Cincinnati’s’ little-publicized defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who Bengals cornerback Eli Apple labeled a “mad scientist.” Crucial to Lou’s defensive game plan was knocking Buffalo’s wide receivers off stride at the line of scrimmage to throw off Josh Allen’s timing, an old Bill Belichick staple.
If you watched the game, you saw the results! Time after time Allen hesitated instead of releasing the ball to his frustrated pass catchers. Can’t blame all of that on poor weather and pass rushers! A great stratagem, especially given the slippery conditions.
Kansas City, meanwhile, has lost only once in its last dozen games—to the Bengals on December 4th in Cincinnati, 27-24.
That day, with the Chiefs leading 24-20 in the fourth quarter, future Hall of Fame Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce caught a pass over the middle and started rumbling downfield. But while Kelce was fighting off Bengals tacklers, linebacker Germaine Pratt reached in and forced a fumble that he recovered himself.
Fifty three yards later, Joe “Cool” threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Chris Evans, and Cincinnati beat the Chiefs again 27-24.
Patrick Mahomes played that game in good health. If his tight end doesn’t fumble that ball away, Kansas City probably finds a way to win, right? After all, despite losing big-play pass catcher Tyreek Hill, Kansas City’s 2022 offense gained more total yards and scored more points than any other NFL team.
The Chiefs offensive line is one of the league’s biggest and best at both run blocking and protection. K-C’s defense recorded 55 quarterback sacks, second only to Philadelphia’s 70. Like the Eagles, they won 14 games, earning a first round playoff bye.
But in Kansas City's last 3 opportunities, the Chief’s defense has not stopped Joe Burrow when it mattered most. In all 3 games, Cincinnati won by a mere three points in each. But Burrow amassed 982 passing yards and 8 touchdowns with just 1 interception. To date, Joe “Cool” remains the only quarterback to defeat Mahomes and the Chiefs three consecutive times.
Yet Burrow said this week, “To me, they’re (the Chiefs) still the team to beat.” Very polite and calculated by a guy who recognizes his opponent's potential.
Kansas City will play at home for the AFC Championship for the fifth consecutive season. Twice they’ve advanced, winning Super Bowl LIV over San Francisco 31-20.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals beat them last year in OT 27-24. Despite his high ankle sprain, Mahomes intends to play. Which means Cincy’s mad scientist defensive coordinator will be scheming to stop him again, one way or another.
“If only he hadn’t gotten hurt!”