The Kansas City Chiefs (5-1) host the Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) in a prime-time showdown Sunday night under the bright lights of Arrowhead Stadium.
With the temperature set to be in the mid-50s and a day full of tailgating on the horizon for a fan base that doesn’t need an excuse to fire up the grill, the scene in the parking lot or Arrowhead hours before kickoff will display what could only be described as the quintessential portrait of NFL fandom.
Family. Friends. Football. This is what it’s all about.
As the AFC postseason picture takes shape over the next 10 weeks or so—based on what’s taken place thus far—there’s a good chance that Sunday night’s game will have a pretty big impact down the road on how things shake up.
There are currently six teams in the AFC that have at least four wins, and the Chiefs and Bengals are two of them. It’s the main reason that the game was flexed to Sunday night—bumping the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers to the afternoon slot.
The decision was music to the ears of Chiefs fans, who love them some extra tailgating time, particularly earlier in the season while the weather is better.
And when combined with the natural excitement that’s already here of what the team has done through six weeks, and the guys rocking the ever-growing-in-popularity red-on-red uniforms (and holding a 4-2 record at home in those uniforms), the atmosphere is going to be electric.
In looking at the matchup, the two teams come into the game with two vastly different levels of success in recent prime time games. The Chiefs have won 19 of their last 23 overall games at Arrowhead Stadium, while also carrying a current five-game winning streak in prime time.
The Bengals, on the other hand, have won just one time in their last 18 attempts on the road in prime time.
While those games have no bearing on what takes place Sunday night, the lessons from the past can generally be seen as our greatest teachers for the future.
Here’s to hoping that continues with these five things to watch between the Chiefs and Bengals on Sunday night:
1. Will the Chiefs get back to their fast starts?
For the first five weeks of the season, the Chiefs’ offense had raced out to fast starts with second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes commanding the offense as well as the howitzer attached to his body.
But last week against the Patriots, the Chiefs had their first slow start to a game of the season, and that was before the well-documented explosion in the second half to the tune of Mahomes completing 9 of 13 for 188 yards and four touchdowns.
Almost half of his completed passes in the second half were for touchdowns, but he threw a couple of first-half interceptions and missed on a few throws with some pressure in his face. Once things settled a bit, the guy who has been pegged as an early MVP candidate showed why that’s the case.
Mahomes leads the NFL with 18 touchdowns passes, and his 20 total touchdowns (two rushing) are more than 24 other NFL teams have combined.
Furthermore, the Bengals defense has been particularly stingy in the second half of their games this season—allowing just 55 points in six games.
A fast start is always important for every team, but the way teams have been playing against the Chiefs—going for it on fourth down and knowing that every possession is critical because they’re facing an offense that’s going to keep putting up points—the ability to get going early is even more important.
The inability to do so can only cause things to snowball with more and more pressure being added on each play, and each drive.
2. Can the Chiefs’ defense contain Joe Mixon?
The Bengals’ offense is led by quarterback Andy Dalton, who is off to the best start of his eight-year career, and much of that has to do with the pairing of A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd at receiver—both players have more than 50 targets on the season, and nobody else has more than 21.
They are the passing game, for the most part.
Dalton has thrown 14 touchdowns to just seven interceptions already this season, and on average, he’s getting rid of the ball quickly—averaging just 2.38 second to attempt, which is among the top five fastest in the league right now, per Pro Football Focus.
But the guy who helps makes it all go—even if he hasn’t lit up a box score yet—is running back Joe Mixon. In four games this year, Mixon has 71 carries for 336 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bengals’ best chance on Sunday is to get Mixon going early and to control the clock and keep the Chiefs’ offense off the field.
Therefore, the game could really come down to the guys in the trenches—Xavier Williams, Chris Jones, Allen Bailey, Derrick Nnadi, Jarvis Jenkins and company—stopping Mixon and forcing Dalton to win a game through the air.
It’s something he hasn’t had success doing on the road in primetime in his career—holding an overall record of 1-8 in those contests.
3. How many defensive stops will it take to win the game?
The Chiefs were one more third-down stop, or turnover, away, from beating the Patriots last Sunday night in Foxboro. They just needed one more stop in some form or fashion.
And in the game against the Jaguars the week before, the Chiefs’ defense stepped up and got those stops—taking the ball away five times—three of which came inside the red zone.
It’ll take a similar effort—either via third-down stops or turnovers, to beat the Bengals on Sunday night.
The Bengals have been one of the most potent offenses in the league through six weeks, and the Chiefs will need to avoid penalties, which has been an issue this year, and then just simply have one guy on each drive step up and make a play.
Whether it’s a linebacker shooting a gap for a tackle-for-loss, or a guy getting pressure to force an incomplete pass, or a nice pass breakup down the field from a defensive back, it just takes stringing together a couple of nice plays on each drive in order to achieve the level of success this team needs to win games.
All games generally come down to three stats—red zone efficiency, third down conversion percentage, and turnovers. If you win two of those categories, you’re generally going to win the game.
So, the question becomes how many defensive stops do the Chiefs need to make in order to win Sunday night? It’s the million-dollar question and one we might be asking ourselves each and every week.
4. Will the pace continue for a couple of guys heading towards some key franchise records?
5. Can they keep Geno Atkins from ruining their plans?
If there’s one player on the Bengals’ defense who can just ruin everything, it’s defensive lineman Geno Atkins (No. 97).
He’s made six Pro Bowls in his last seven years, and he currently ranks sixth in the league with six sacks, and more importantly, he’s tied for third in the league with 33 quarterback pressures, per PFF.
Atkins is a prototypical 3-tech defensive lineman, which means he’ll generally be lined up over one of the guards, and he’s lightning fast and brutally strong at the point of attack to fire into the backfield.
The Chiefs have already played some beasts up front in guys like DeForest Buckner (49ers) and Calais Campbell (Jaguars), but Atkins may be the best of the bunch.
“[Atkins is] phenomenal,” Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid explained. “He’s a tough nut who’s been doing this a long time. Both him and [Carlos] Dunlap have been there forever I feel like. Those guys have played for a lot of years at a very high level and they are still doing it. We are going to have to play well and do a nice job up front. They present some talent.”