Kansas City vs. Cincinnati: What to Watch For

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The Cincinnati Bengals and the Kansas City Chiefs will meet for the second consecutive year in the A.F.C. championship game. Last season, the Bengals (12-4) came back from an 18-point deficit to deny Kansas City (14-3) its third straight Super Bowl appearance.

Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes has dominated the N.F.L. since he became the starter in 2018, winning the Most Valuable Player Award that season and a Super Bowl the following one. But Cincinnati has been a persistent roadblock for Mahomes and Kansas City; the Bengals have prevailed in their last three matchups.

Sunday’s game will kick off at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time on CBS. Betting lines suggest a tight matchup, with Kansas City favored by 1 point. Here are story lines to watch:

Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Arden Key landed on Mahomes’s ankle while trying to pull him down during the first quarter in Kansas City’s win over the Jaguars in the divisional round last weekend. Mahomes limped back on the field and then was forced to go to the locker room by his team’s medical staff, which prompted a frustrated outburst from him on the sidelines. He returned to the game in the second quarter with his right shoe wrapped in athletic tape, moving without the elusiveness and scrambling that make him one of the most talented players in the N.F.L.

The team called Mahomes’s injury a high ankle sprain, and Mahomes practiced throughout the week and said he planned to play on Sunday. But if he is not able to, or if he injures that ankle again, Kansas City should be in good hands with its backup quarterback Chad Henne. While Mahomes sat out against Jacksonville, Henne led a 98-yard drive for a touchdown to extend Kansas City’s lead to 10. And in 2021, when Mahomes sustained a concussion in a divisional round game against the Cleveland Browns, Henne led the team to a win.

The matchup between these two teams has evolved into a rivalry filled with trash talking. The war of words began last year between Bengals defensive back Eli Apple and Kansas City receivers Mecole Hardman and Tyreek Hill, who now plays for the Miami Dolphins. After the Bengals’ A.F.C. championship victory last year, Apple said on Twitter that he would buy Hardman and Hill Super Bowl tickets. When the Bengals lost the Super Bowl, Hardman posted a photo of his Super Bowl ring and told Apple he “might get one of these one day.” (That tweet appears to have been recently deleted.)

After Cincinnati beat the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round last weekend, Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said he would see Kansas City in “Burrowhead,” tweaking Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium to show how the Bengals have recently dominated Kansas City behind quarterback Joe Burrow.

So on Sunday, expect a lot of spice on the field — and then run to social media to see what’s said after the game.

This game features two of the league’s highest scoring offenses: Kansas City finished first in the league in points per game and Cincinnati finished eighth, despite playing in only 16 games. So expect lots of scoring, and touchdown celebrations, which players on both teams are known for. Cincinnati receiver Ja’Marr Chase is popular for doing the dance the Griddy after he scores. Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, who has 12 touchdowns this season, changes up his celebrations with each score: he has done everything from high-stepping into the end zone to choreographing invisible potato-sack races with teammates.

There’s also the pregame fashion show, otherwise known as the walk from the bus to the locker room after arriving at the stadium. Burrow has been celebrated for his pregame looks, which have featured fur coats and designer glasses. Mahomes wears large, bright-colored Oakley glasses. And Kelce has been praised for his style, once making Sports Illustrated’s “Fashionable 50” list for being “unafraid to mix patterns and take risks with his fashion,” along with his “perfectly manicured beard.”