KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs have lost three straight games to the Cincinnati Bengals, including last year's AFC title game, when they blew an early 21-3 lead in an overtime defeat before a sea of stunned fans inside Arrowhead Stadium.
Patrick Mahomes, who expects to lead the Chiefs against the Bengals on a sprained right ankle in Sunday night's rematch, is likewise winless against Bengals counterpart Joe Burrow, the only quarterback to have beaten him three straight times.
In other words, there's a reason the AFC North champions are imbued with a certain degree of confidence as they return to Kansas City, where the burgeoning rivals will once again determine who represents the AFC in the Super Bowl.
"Your preparation leads to confidence. That's just what you see from Joe and all of our players," explained the even-keeled Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who has somehow out-schemed, out-coached and gotten his team to out-execute Andy Reid and his Chiefs over the past 13 months. "So when they walk on the field on Sunday, they're relaxed."
In fact, the Bengals are so confident that some have taken to calling the Chiefs' home "Burrowhead Stadium."
Which, as you can imagine, doesn't sit well with the AFC West champs.
"I'm sure a lot of guys are aware of the comments they're making," Chiefs wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster admitted. "The Bengals have always been the rah-rah team, and they back it up. And they're doing so again in the postseason."
Yet it's not as if the Bengals, who roared past the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round, have dominated the Chiefs, who took care of the Jacksonville Jaguars despite losing Mahomes for most of a quarter following his injury.
All three of their meetings have been decided by just three points each.
"We know what team we're playing, a team that has been to this game the last five seasons, and they've all been in that stadium," Burrow said. "So to me, they're still the team to beat and we're coming for them, but we know it's going to be tough. We know it's going to be hard-fought, and we know the kind of players they have on that side."
Their matchup in last year's title game was a classic. Mahomes threw three first-half touchdown passes, then Burrow led a dramatic comeback for Cincinnati. And when the Chiefs' Harrison Butker kicked a 41-yard field goal with no time left to send the game to overtime, the Bengals quickly picked off Mahomes to set up Evan McPherson's winning kick.
"Listen, they probably should be confident. They've won three games," said Reid, who is trying to guide Kansas City back to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons. "That's OK. We're still going to play the game."
Besides, the Chiefs have a quiet confidence about them, too.
"I would say they know us. We know them. And we're all searching for that little extra that you can throw at them," Reid said. "We've played each other enough that I'm sure both sides feel the same way."
The Chiefs' All-Pro quarterback practiced as usual this week, and Mahomes' ailing right ankle did not appear more heavily taped than the left. His ability to scramble is a big part of his game, though, particularly when it comes to finding time to make off-schedule throws, and any hesitation could be costly for Kansas City's offense.
"It's about being a competitor," Mahomes said this week. "You want to be out there, especially in these games."
The Bengals often struggled to run the ball this season, but Joe Mixon dominated the Bills last week, despite an offensive line forced to use a trio of backups because of injuries. He finished with 105 yards rushing and a touchdown.
"That's nothing I'm surprised about," Mixon said. "At the same time it's a great thing to be able to contribute in a major way with my teammates in a crucial moment. So as the moments get bigger, I've just got to keep elevating my game."
Whatever the limitations on Mahomes because of his ankle, the Chiefs will almost certainly try to help him out by getting their run game going. Isiah Pacheco had 95 yards on just 12 carries last week, and the bulk of that came during a 12-play, 98-yard drive when Mahomes was getting examined and backup Chad Henne was in the game.
A big part of Burrow's success is getting the ball out quickly, before pass rushers can find a lane and defenders can process what's happening. His release time averaged about 2 1/2 seconds last week and the Bills sacked him just once.
"We can't let him sit back in the pocket and get into rhythm throws because that's when he's most dangerous," Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. "You're not going to win games if you don't get sacks and turnovers, especially against a team like this."
The Bengals have one of the league's best groups of wide receivers, headlined by Ja'Marr Chase, who set the franchise's single-game record with 266 yards receiving in a regular-season win over Kansas City last season.
They'll be facing one of the youngest defensive backfields, which often has three rookie corners and a rookie safety on the field at once.
"Hopefully we've grown enough that we can match what they put out there," Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "This is an elite group we're going against. We have to have an elite game. We have to play our best game of the year."
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