KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs are accustomed to battling it out for a Super Bowl berth when the snow starts to fall.
On Sunday, they are simply playing to get into the playoffs.
The Bengals (8-7) have won three of their last four games to keep their AFC wild card hopes alive, but they desperately need to beat Kansas City (9-6) to give themselves a good chance of qualifying. for the playoffs.
And the Chiefs have lost three of their last four games and still need a win, or help from Las Vegas and Denver, to clinch their eighth straight AFC West title.
“It’s so unpredictable from year to year what teams are going to do,” said Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who has managed to keep his team in contention for a third straight playoff appearance despite losing Joe Burrow just 10 games into the season.
“You look around the AFC, at all levels and the teams that are still in it,” Taylor continued, “it’s just going to be a matter of who can figure out how to win and keep the momentum going a little bit.”
The Bengals’ momentum was halted last week in Pittsburgh, where they allowed the Steelers to take a 24-0 halftime lead in a 34-11 loss. Jake Browning, who played well in place of Burrow, threw three interceptions in the game.
“Obviously it was a different quarterback,” Browning said, “but we’ve been on runs before and had to play before where it was like, ‘Hey, let’s focus on one game at a time .’ So we just have to focus on the Chiefs game and whatever happens, it will happen.
Although the Bengals believe the momentum is still on their side, the Chiefs have been just as devoid of it since Andy Reid took over as coach.
Unless it’s momentum in the wrong direction.
Perhaps the worst performance of Reid’s decade in Kansas City was his last, when they didn’t allow an offensive touchdown — or a completion after the first quarter, for that matter — but still lost to the Raiders at Christmas. Las Vegas returned a fumble for a touchdown and got a pick-6 thrown by Patrick Mahomes on consecutive plays in the 20-14 victory.
Now, the defending Super Bowl champions have no chance of becoming the AFC’s No. 1 seed with two games remaining.
“We are still in first place in the AFC West. We still have one game to win the division,” Mahomes said. “We understand that this is not going to be easy. But if we keep working, if we win this game and make the playoffs, we know we can do what we set out to do at the beginning of this season, and that’s get to the Super Bowl.
The Bengals could be without Pro Bowl receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who missed practice earlier in the week to treat his ailing shoulder. Chase has shredded the Chiefs over the years, including a game in January 2022 in which he caught 11 passes for a franchise record 266 yards and three touchdowns.
Cincinnati was also waiting to see how top cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt fared in practice this week. He was cleared to return from an ankle injury that placed him on injured reserve, opening a 21-day window to activate him or end his season.
Injuries are also a concern in Kansas City, where five starters were absent from practice earlier this week: CBs L’Jarius Sneed (calf) and Jaylen Watson (illness), RB Isiah Pacheco (concussion), LT Donovan Smith (neck) and WR Kadarius Toney.
The Chiefs could get WR Mecole Hardman back this week. He trained, but was not activated off-IR.
BABY ON BOARD
Bengals left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who spent two Pro Bowl seasons in Kansas City, celebrated the birth of his son, Sonny, moments after leaving the field in Pittsburgh last week. Brown watched the birth on FaceTime from the locker room.
“For me, football is a bit everything at the moment. You don’t really get that opportunity back. You don’t get to witness a birth either,” he said. “For me, it was important to be there with the guys in Pittsburgh and be with them.”
BETTING ON BIG GAMES
The Chiefs offense has been known for its big plays over the years, but Mahomes is averaging just 6.6 yards through the air per attempt this season, the sixth-worst mark in the AFC.
And thanks in part to the fact that Kansas City’s wide receivers have more dropped passes than any other team, his average for completed air yards is only better than that of Bears backup Tyson Bagent.
But the Bengals could offer a chance for Mahomes, who has already thrown a career-worst 14 interceptions, to open the scoring. They allowed Steelers’ George Pickens to catch touchdowns of 66 and 86 yards last week.
THE CAMERAS ARE WATCHING
Several times this season, television cameras have filmed Chiefs players in moments of frustration. It was Mahomes charging after an official following an offsides penalty on Kadarius Toney in a loss to Buffalo, and it was Travis Kelce last week, when their star tight end threw his helmet on the bench and that Reid refused to give it back to him.
“When you’ve won a lot of games,” Reid said, “your tolerance level for not doing as well as you should goes down. Things happen. That’s the great thing: It’s Football is an emotional game.
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