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NFL: AFC Championship Game preview

In a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game, the Cincinnati Bengals visit the Kansas City Chiefs once again with a trip to the NFL Championship on the line.

Beating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs once is difficult enough. The Bengals have done it on three-straight tries, including victories in last year's AFC Championship Game and in Week 13 this season. A fourth-straight win over KC would certainly cement Cincinnati as one of the NFL's elite franchises, rather than one people continue to underestimate.

WhatCincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs
WhereArrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
When6:30 ET, Sunday, January 29th, 2023
How to watchCBS, Streaming via Paramount+
OddsCIN Bengals +100, KC Chiefs -120

Mahomes' ankle sprain the X-factor

Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of the Chiefs' 27-20 win over Jacksonville last Saturday and, although he briefly left the game for X-rays, the All-Pro quarterback returned in the second half to lead Kansas City to a fifth-straight conference title game.

Mahomes was clearly not his usual self after returning to the game, and was even seen wearing a walking boot after the win.

He partook in the team's walkthrough on Wednesday morning and intends to practice as usual in the days leading up to the game, while showing no doubt or unrest when asked about the injury by the media. 

Mahomes said the injury is similar to one he played through early in the 2019 season, when he showed no ill effects by throwing four touchdown passes, all in the second quarter, of the following week's win over the Oakland Raiders.

There is no doubt that this injury has spooked a few who were ready to make Kansas City clear favorites on Sunday.

The line fluctuation throughout the week continued into Thursday, when the Chiefs were set as 1-point favorites. After opening as 2.5-point favorites, uncertainty surrounding Mahomes' injury caused the Chiefs to move to -1 late on Monday, then to 2.5-point underdogs on Tuesday. In two days since, Kansas City have been made favorites again, while the Bengals are +100 on the Money Line.

Chiefs still haunted by last championship game showing

Mahomes' ankle injury won't limit him much on plays he remains in the pocket. The true condition of his ankle will be tested when he is forced to make plays on the run. 

While Mahomes is an elite pocket passer, what elevates him to God-like status among modern quarterbacks is his ability to make off-platform throws and extend plays long enough for receivers to get open downfield. Many of the most iconic plays of his young career have come when he is forced to improvise outside the pocket. 

The Bengals have made Mahomes struggle even when he is fully healthy - limiting him to just 16 completions in their 27-24 win over the Chiefs in Week 13.

Chiefs fans won't like recalling the last time they saw Mahomes play in a big game with an injury, that being the 2020. Still feeling the effects of turf toe from three weeks prior, Mahomes struggled against the Buccaneers' overwhelming defensive pressure. The Chiefs were held to nine points in that game, the second-fewest they have ever scored with Mahomes as QB. 

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Bengals clicking on both sides of the ball

After restricting the Buffalo Bills to a season-low 10 points last weekend, the Bengals will have no shortage of confidence they can do the same to another familiar foe. The Cincy D continues to be one of the most underrated units in the league and seemingly play with a chip on their shoulder, especially at this time of year.

The Bengals should be just fine if the defense can't limit Mahomes and company like they did Josh Allen in the Divisional Round. Burrow and his receiving corps of Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd are more than capable of matching the Chiefs historically-potent offense score-for-score, should the game end up in a shootout. 

Despite running back Joe Mixon's success in Buffalo, head coach Zac Taylor may look for Cincinnati's trio of superstar wide receivers to do the damage to a Chiefs defense that has allowed more passing touchdowns than any other team this season.

Chase, who hauled in 24 receptions for 417 yards and four touchdowns in those three recent Bengals-Chiefs matchups, should draw a lot of double coverage. Two defenders on Chase will mean more space for Higgins and Boyd, though, which is equally as risky as leaving Ja'Marr one-on-one. 

Chiefs must attack depleted Cincinnati O-line

The Chiefs will have to limit Burrow's time in the pocket to avoid him picking apart their suspect pass defense. Kansas City will face a banged-up Cincy offensive line, which everyone expected to struggle last week in Buffalo. They didn't.

The Bengals o-line ranked 31st in pass-block win rate going into the Divisional Round and could still be without starting right guard Alex Cappa (ankle) and left tackle Jonah Williams (knee), who missed practice on Wednesday. Center Ted Karras (knee) was a full participant.

Despite the Cincinnati offensive line's impressive performance in the Divisional Round, traveling to Arrowhead and doing the same poses a different challenge. Cincy's 14-0 lead in the first quarter vs. the Bills also made the o-line's job easier, a luxury they may not have in Kansas City.

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