Photograph: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports
Following last weekend’s slate of thrillers, what does the NFL do for an encore this time around? Sunday’s two championship games have a lot to live up to but there are more than enough storylines swirling around the four remaining teams to ensure plenty of fireworks (quite literally when it comes to the Chiefs).
What the Bengals need to do to win: Everything perfectly. It all starts with quarterback Joe Burrow taking better care of the ball. Against the Tennessee Titans, Burrow was sacked nine times, tying a playoff record. Much of this was due to the porous offensive line – which will have to step up on Sunday – but some down to Burrow’s refusal to simply throw the ball away when under pressure. The Bengals beat the Chiefs 34-31 in the regular season, so they know they have a chance of an upset, but it won’t happen if Burrow can’t stay on his feet.
What the Chiefs need to do to win: The defense needs to do better. Let’s be real: as entertaining as Bills-Chiefs was, Kansas City had to a) set up a game-tying field goal in the span of 13 seconds and b) win a coin toss to clinch the game in overtime. Their defense allowed 36 points against the Bills and they could be without safety Tyrann Mathieu, who suffered a head injury last Sunday. (He returned to practice on Thursday but his status for the Bengals game was still uncertain at time of writing.) Yes, the Bills were an extremely tough matchup, but Burrow and the Bengals are in the AFC title game for a reason.
Key player: Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs. Mahomes only came into the league in 2017, but he has already won a regular season MVP award and is looking to take his team to their third straight Super Bowl (where he also has been selected as an MVP). If we’re living in the golden age of NFL quarterbacks – and it’s difficult to argue we’re not – Mahomes is the perfect example of why.