Why Cincinnati Bengals Are Kansas City's Worst Nightmare
NFL Week 13 - There is no formula to beat the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs have lost a league-low 10 regular-season games since 2020, their first season defending a Super Bowl title under Patrick Mahomes. Yet over the course of nearly three years, there has never been a loss Kansas City has suffered where media pundits press the record button the following day and say, in earnest, "The book is out on how to beat the Chiefs." Most of their losses feature some combination of elite quarterback play, elite defensive play, aggressive decision-making by the head coach, and a bit of luck breaking opponents' way. (I'm looking at you, Frank Reich's Colts.)
However, one team has had more success than any other against the loaded Chiefs. The Joe Burrow-led Cincinnati Bengals are now 3-0 in their last three games against Kansas City. Over that span, only the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Chargers have been able to beat the Chiefs more than once, and neither has remained undefeated against Kansas City. Despite Cincinnati's consistent success against Mahomes and the Chiefs, it's tough to write some kind of game plan off the Bengals' success. That's because the Bengals are uniquely built to beat a team like Kansas City.
The first thing that immediately comes to mind when trying to attack the Chiefs is simply keeping up with their offensive firepower. While not as top-heavy as they were with Tyreek Hill on their roster, Kansas City still boasts the best offense by DVOA in the league. Any team that wants to best the Chiefs either has to win in a shootout or completely shut them down defensively. The Bengals are built to both outgun the Chiefs and slow them down.
That starts with Joe Burrow. Burrow has both the elite passing and the legs necessary to combat the Chiefs defense. Kansas City is now 1-4 against quarterbacks with at least 225 passing yards and eight rushing attempts, with Burrow joining Josh Allen (twice), and Lamar Jackson in the win column, per Stathead. Of those games, Burrow is the only quarterback to also complete at least 70% of his passes. While Burrow isn't considered a dual-threat quarterback like Allen, Jackson, and Hurts, his career-high 11 rushing attempts weren't all scrambles. Cincinnati ran designed runs for Burrow, creating yet another threat for Kansas City's defense to worry about.
The designed run is a part of Burrow outright changing his style of play. Following an offseason when Burrow defended the number of sacks he took, he is beginning to take fewer and fewer. Kansas City was only able to bring Burrow down once on Sunday. They were only able to pressure him once, per Pro Football Reference. That's a far cry from the 22 combined pressures Kansas City generated in their two 2021 games against the Bengals. Part of that is on the new-and-improved Bengals offensive line, but a lot of that is on Burrow putting himself in a better position to escape a collapsing pocket with his feet, throwing to checkdowns, and throwing away when needed.
Burrow couldn't have accomplished what he did by himself. While Miami may boast the best wide receiver duo in football, no team has a better wide receiver trio than the Cincinnati Bengals. Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are the only two wide receivers on the same team to be ranked top-five in receiving DVOA (Hill just misses out in sixth place). Ja'Marr Chase ranks the lowest of the Bengals' trio, ranking 21st in DYAR and 23rd in DVOA. All three are under contract through 2023, two of them still on rookie deals. What are the odds of having all that elite, young talent on cap-controlled contracts at the same time? It's astronomical, Diana. That's why no other team can counter Kansas City in the same way Cincinnati can.
All three were impact players in Cincinnati's second-best game by offensive passing DVOA this season. In Chase's first game back from injury, he put up his third-best game of the season by yards per target. All four of Boyd's receptions went four first downs. Higgins helped Cincinnati jump out to an early 14-3 lead with his touchdown grab and reeled in a game-sealing first down grab on third-and-11. Kansas City's pass defense struggles enough against most passing attacks, but Cincinnati's top-loaded trio is another story. Kansas City ranks 26th against No. 1 receivers, but it's hard to identify who Cincinnati's No. 1 receiver is. Even when all three are covered, that opens the door for someone such as Chris Evans—who has three receptions this year—to get open for a touchdown.
Having all that elite receiving talent forced Kansas City to drop back deep into coverage. Those kinds of schemes open up the run game for Burrow and Samaje Perine. Whenever the Bengals activate Joe Mixon back from his concussion, Perine needs to continue to be a part of this offense. Perine has proven himself a great multi-purpose back in the two games he has started in Mixon's absence. On the season, Perine is third in DYAR and fourth in DVOA among running backs with under 100 carries, with his 86 DYAR and 19.8% DVOA both out-performing Mixon on the season. Perine also ranks seventh among all backs in both receiving DYAR and receiving DVOA, once again out-performing Mixon in both categories. Sunday's matchup against the Chiefs showed Perine's strengths in rushing, receiving, and pass protection.
One thing Perine brings to the table that Mixon does not is an ability to fight through contact. According to Pro Football Reference, Perine is averaging a half-yard more after contact per rushing attempt and a full yard after contact per reception more than Mixon; while Mixon leads Perine with three more broken tackles on the season, Perine has fewer attempts per broken tackle in both the run game and pass game.
Combined, the Bengals have offensive personnel necessary to not only keep up with Kansas City, but to outright leave points on the board. Few teams would be able to beat Kansas City while failing to convert a fourth-and-1 inside the Chiefs' 5-yard-line and dropping a wide-open touchdown in the end zone to settle for a field goal.
Defensively, Cincinnati just was not afraid of the threat posed by Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and the rest of the Kansas City offense. The Bengals made Kelce a non-factor for much of the game, holding him without a reception in a half for the first time this season. His four receptions are tied for a season low, while his 56 receiving yards serve as one of Kelce's lowest volume games since Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers. The few times Kansas City was able to scheme Kelce open, like when they motioned him into a stack with Justin Watson on third-and-short in the red zone, the play just didn't go the Chiefs' way. In this case, Kelce was open for the first down with space to maneuver, but Mahomes' pass was batted at the line of scrimmage.
Speaking of Cincinnati's front seven, they played a fantastic game against Mahomes. Cincinnati was able to pressure Mahomes on 35.5% of his dropbacks, the second-highest rate Mahomes has felt pressure this season. While that usually spells trouble for most defenses, the Bengals did a great job spying Mahomes, eliminating his legs. Mahomes had the second-worst yards per scramble of the season while also taking two sacks in the process. Cincinnati consistently generated pressure against both Chiefs tackles. This sack by Sam Hubbard to set up third-and-long goes right at Andrew Wylie, ripping right outside and over while the zone coverage to the strong side keeps Mahomes reading long enough for him to get home.
This all came together on the final play from scrimmage for Kansas City's offense. Joseph Ossai gets right underneath Orlando Brown to flush Mahomes out of the pocket. Hubbard spies Mahomes, protecting any escape act on a scramble to the left side of the field. Mahomes tries to break for the middle, but Ossai gets Mahomes by his cleat, setting up an eventual field goal miss by Harrison Butker. Even if Mahomes had time to throw, the Tampa-2 coverage over top left him with little options to throw to.
This is the kind of game that shows why the Bengals have leapt to sixth in our total DVOA rankings and fifth in weighted DVOA. There has always been an understanding that the offense has been good, but the improved offensive line and a more pocket-aware Burrow makes this offense lethal. The pass defense was able to limit one of the best offensive weapons in football and generate consistent pressure against Mahomes. From a personnel perspective, the Bengals have just about everything you want in a football team. In a virtual tie with a Baltimore Ravens team that may be without its quarterback for a stretch, the Bengals are back among the AFC contenders after back-to-back wins against two of the three division leaders. After a rocky start to the 2022 season, Cincinnati finally looks like a team ready to defend its AFC title.
By the DVOA
Kansas City posted its second-worst game of the season by defensive DVOA and third-worst of the season by total DVOA. Most of that comes off the heels of a 54.6% defensive passing DVOA effort, their worst of the season.
In a game when Kansas City only punted once, the two field goals kicked by the Chiefs end up being very telling from a win probability perspective. Kansas City kicked field goals on their first and last drive of the game: one on fourth-and-3 from Cincinnati's 8-yard-line, and one on fourth-and-7 from Cincinnati's 37 yard line.
First FG, 4:00 left Q1, 7-0 Bengals
- Go for it 29.6%
- FG 27.0%
Second FG, 3:24 left Q4, 27-24 Bengals
- Go for it 31.5%
- FG 29.1%
In between these drives is a big up-and-down arc fueled by three straight Chiefs touchdown drives, then a late Kelce fumble to set up a Cincinnati go-ahead touchdown. The individual samples say a lot though. First, it's very surprising that Kansas City's win probability is this low considering Kansas City was 6-1 coming into Sunday when down seven or more at the end of the first quarter.
The other expresses confidence in Cincinnati to close out this game. Despite the missed field goal, the Bengals got the ball back with 3:19 to go and Kansas City had three timeouts. The Bengals had eight offensive drives on the day, and outside of a lone three-and-out, no drive was shorter than eight plays. The fourth quarter alone featured two 10-play drives by the Bengals, one to put a soon-to-be game-winning touchdown on the board, and the other to ice the game.
There are few teams that the Chiefs will have this kind of struggle with. Buffalo and Baltimore have both elite quarterback play and defense, but they don't have receiving depth. Miami has an elite passing offense, but their defense is not enough to keep up with Kansas City. The Bengals, as addressed, are uniquely poised to stay competitive with Kansas City, and even still, each of their three games has been a one-score matchup.
That's the thing about games like this. Mahomes and the rest of the offense still played well. Cincinnati just played better. Kansas City still had a lot of good answers to what the Bengals threw at them. On zero blitzes, Mahomes was able to hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a seam for a big gain. Valdes-Scantling had another big catch splitting the safeties with a vertical route on a Cover-2 look. JuJu Smith-Schuster fought for extra yards on a third-and-long that eventually led to a touchdown. The Chiefs were still very much in a position to win this game, even after a game-changing turnover. For most teams, that's what you strive for every week. Now, Kansas City is not "most teams," but that's beside the point.
The worst thing about these tight losses is that the Chiefs can very easily clean up some of these mistakes. In a game with margins as close as these, everything matters. Kansas City played a relatively clean game, but three of their four penalties came at bad times. A Juan Thornhill interception taken all the way back to Cincinnati's 9-yard-line was waved off by defensive pass interference on Trent McDuffie. The next play, an incompletion to Higgins, turns into 15 yards on roughing the passer. Five plays later, Higgins finds the end zone. The next drive, on third-and-15, Mahomes resurrects a broken play by funding Justin Watson 34 yards downfield for a huge gain, but an ineligible man downfield penalty wipes the play off. Mahomes responds with a heave downfield to Valdes-Scantling that had no shot of finding purchase.
This is not counting the Kelce fumble, mind you. Procedural mistakes are bound to happen in games. Kelce has had one fumble per year each of the last four years. Did it happen at a back-breaking time? Absolutely, but Kelce adds a lot on those plays where he fights for a few extra yards. He carried that ball an extra 5 yards after initial contact. Eliminating that kind of potential because of a one-in-one-hundred-touches fumble may do more harm than good. Maybe go down when the third guy gets to you, I suppose.
If there is one consolation prize to this loss, it's the emergence of Isiah Pacheco. Over the last four weeks, the rookie running back has finished fourth in rushing DYAR among running backs, boasting a 13.9% DVOA. Pacheco and the Chiefs offensive line looked great in stretches on Sunday, with Pacheco picking up big yards cutting back into open space. That kind of running back talent is something no Kansas City team has had before headed into the postseason, so seeing Pacheco play with such consistency is good to have going forward. While Kansas City should continue to be a pass-first team, the success of Pacheco should be enough to open up some things for their rushing attack.
However, the biggest concern out of this game may be an apparent Mahomes foot injury sustained on the final sack of the game. Head coach Andy Reid said it was "fine," but it was enough of a concern that Reid deemed it necessary to bring up in the press conference. Mahomes missed a stretch in 2020 with a turf toe injury that eventually required offseason surgery. If this affected Kansas City's decision to kick a field goal late instead of going for it, so be it. Losing him for any stretch would be a big problem, though.
Kansas City is playing an uphill battle for the first-round bye with Buffalo, who has the head-to-head tiebreaker over them. It's their top seed to lose, and they very well could. Buffalo has the eighth-hardest future schedule by our numbers, while Kansas City has the second-easiest. Losing Mahomes for any stretch, however, throws a big wrench in the whole operation. The injury is only something to monitor right now, but it's still certainly worth monitoring.