For the Cincinnati Bengals to become AFC Champions on Sunday and earn a trip to Super Bowl LVI, it will likely come down to one thing: How they play against Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs.
Typically, football games don’t come down to just one area, but this matchup is a different story. As seen when Kansas City defeated Buffalo in overtime to advance to the title game, Mahomes and Hill can change the landscape of the game at any moment.
With 0:13 to play in regulation down 36-33, Mahomes found his favorite target Hill and tight end Travis Kelce to get the Chiefs in the field goal position to tie the game and send it to overtime. That’s how quickly Mahomes and Hill can cover ground.
In the first meeting in Week 16, the Bengals limited Hill’s production to six catches for 40 yards and zero touchdowns. They’ll need a similar game plan this time around.
"I just think guys sticking with the plan and knowing what type of leverage we wanted to play on him and where and when the help was coming from on him,” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said was the key to success against Hill. “So, without giving too much away, we'll see how that looked and how we did there. The yards came out good for us the first time. But they'll watch that too, and have something, but we'll certainly have some changeups, for sure."
Hill and Mahomes also have banked years of experience in postseason games together and it’s why they are such a dangerous duo. Mahomes knows he can rely on Hill at any moment and more often than not he delivers .Hill finished No. 7 in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,239 on 111 catches this season.
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The reason Hill presents different challenges than other No. 1 wide receivers is his speed. As Anarumo said before the first meeting, if Hill gets behind any of his players in the secondary, he’s gone. He also presents issues from a planning standpoint because his speed can’t be replicated in practice.
“He's one of the fastest guys on the planet so we really can't simulate it,” Anarumo said.
Hill was targeted the fourth-most of any NFL wide receiver during the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus. Mahomes is looking to get the ball in Hill’s hands whenever he can. Against the Bengals in the first meeting, Hill was Mahomes’ top target despite only catching six of his 10 targets.
Bengals top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie will draw most of the matchups against Hill in the game. Based off how Awuzie played against Hill in the first meeting, Cincinnati should feel good about the matchup. In the Week 17 matchup, when Awuzie was matched up on Hill, he only gave up 31 yards on eight targets and two first downs, per Pro Football Focus. The longest catch Awuzie gave up on Hill was for eight yards and he recorded nine tackles.
Anarumo said when traveling to face a team like the Chiefs that possesses as much star power as they do, limiting explosive plays and forcing Kansas City to kick field goals is key. And while the Bengals have an offense good enough to go toe-to-toe with Mahomes and his weapons, limiting their production is the easiest way to ensure a win.
"I know we'll be confident when we go in,” Anarumo said. “They're a great, great football team and we'll have to be at our best. We're not going to survive if we don't catch those interceptions that we dropped the first time if he indeed gives us the opportunities. We have to make plays that way. We'll be confident. We've been that way all year. They're a great football team. We have great respect for them and we'll put our best foot forward on Sunday."