Bengals can afford to start dreaming of repeat run after latest Chiefs upset
Prior to Joe Burrow's arrival in 2020, the Cincinnati Bengals were an NFL punchline. In the third season of what looks set to be a storied NFL career, he has helped them turn one of the most fearsome teams in the league into their own personal punching bag.
Ok, that may be going a little far. However, after their thrilling 27-24 win in Week 13, it is clear the Bengals are the dominant team in a rivalry with the Kansas City Chiefs, who they have now defeated in three successive games including their remarkable AFC Championship Game triumph last season.
That dream run to the Super Bowl was one that looked difficult to replicate, especially after the Bengals made an 0-2 start to the season with defeats to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys.
But the concern from that early disappointment has long since dissipated, with Burrow once authoring an increasingly impressive follow-up to his outstanding 2021 campaign.
Continually perfect placement
He reached a highpoint for the 2022 season on Sunday by once again outduelling Patrick Mahomes in an undulating thrill ride in Cincinnati, exhibiting the accuracy that defined the Bengals' unexpected 2021 ascension.
The former number one overall pick delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 87.1 per cent of his pass attempts, according to Stats Perform data, his superb ball placement helping him complete 25 of his 31 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns. Burrow also opened the scoring with a rushing touchdown.
While the final stat line in terms of yardage may not be eye-popping, Burrow averaged 9.23 yards per attempt, his precision as a passer ensuring the Bengals maintained offensive efficiency that is critical against the Chiefs.
Burrow ended the game with a completion percentage of 80.6, over five per cent higher than his expected completion percentage of 75.4.
And yet, even in a game where Burrow was deadly accurate, the Bengals averaged 8.7 yards per pass play and Ja'Marr Chase had 97 yards on seven catches on his return from injury, it could be argued the Bengals did not fire on all cylinders.
Though they moved the ball well, the Bengals went three of seven in the red zone, with Tyler Boyd committing a crucial drop on a would-be touchdown on third down in the third quarter, and Burrow regularly had to make plays with his legs when pass protection that has improved this season broke down.
Normally such missed opportunities as the Bengals had inside the 20-yard line would be fatal against the Chiefs and the most feared quarterback of his generation, but since Burrow returned from the knee injury that prematurely ended his rookie year to reassume command of the offense in 2021, he and Cincinnati have become experts in finding a way to prevail against any calibre of this opposition.
On this occasion versus the Chiefs, it was success in finding balance that saw them navigate a path to a win over the team that entered Week 13 as the AFC's number one seed.
Yin and Yang
Cincinnati's passing game was complemented by a ground attack that took advantage of Kansas City's vulnerability defending the run.
Backup running back Samaje Perine averaged five yards per carry, with the efforts of the offensive line aiding him in putting up 3.29 yards before contact per rush, the sixth-most among backs with at least 10 carries in Week 13.
More critical, though, was the fourth-quarter defiance of the defense, which, despite struggling to get Mahomes off the field, came up with two crucial stops when the Bengals needed them most.
Germaine Pratt forced and recovered a fumble from Travis Kelce on a 19-yard reception to set up a go-ahead touchdown for the Bengals, on which Burrow found a wide-open Chris Evans after Boyd redeemed himself with a key third-down catch, and Joseph Ossai – who missed all of his rookie year due to injury – showcased his pass-rushing prowess and his motor to bring down Mahomes for a sack on third and short, ending the Chiefs' subsequent drive and forcing a long game-tying field goal attempt that Harrison Butker pushed wide right.
That gave Burrow the chance to kill the game in the final minutes and, after a second-down sack that appeared as if it might give the Chiefs one more chance, he extinguished any lingering Kansas City hope with one final display of his elite marksmanship.
Under pressure from Derrick Nnadi, Burrow calmly delivered a perfect ball to Tee Higgins over the middle as the Bengals ran a slant-flat concept, his throw delivered with the timing and anticipation to dart into the grasp of Higgins and defeat the excellent coverage of rookie Joshua Williams, ensuring Cincinnati picked up a first down on third-and-11 and ended the ball game.
Since Week 6, when the Bengals set off a run that has seen them win six of their past seven games, Burrow leads the NFL in completion percentage (72.3) and passing touchdowns (16), while he is third in yards per attempt (8.55), showcasing the kind of form that lifted the Bengals to the Super Bowl last season.
While he was both devastatingly accurate and efficient in Sunday's engrossing victory, it was a Bengals performance that, a week on from a hard-fought 20-16 win over the Tennessee Titans, further demonstrated they do not necessarily need Burrow to carry the entire burden of their hopes on his shoulders.
Against Kansas City, the Bengals used a balanced offensive approach to win the time of possession battle – Cincinnati limiting the Chiefs' opportunities by holding the ball for over four minutes more than their high-powered opponents – and delivered defensive stops in the crucial moments.
But such key plays may not have borne fruit had Burrow not answered the bell with an unstoppable throw to Higgins when it was all on his shoulders.
There is the talent on the Bengals' roster that Burrow doesn't have to do everything, but approaching the end of his third season as pro, the overwhelming evidence is that he can.
This latest win over the Chiefs does indeed represent the zenith of 2022 for Burrow and the Bengals to this point. The exciting thing for Cincinnati, though, is that, for as much as he impressed, it was not Burrow's best performance of the season.
The ceiling for the Cincinnati offense is higher than what the Bengals produced in Week 13, and the fact they weren't required to reach it to knock off Kansas City once more should offer substantial encouragement to the reigning AFC champions, and terrify the rest of the conference looking to usurp them.