If you think the Kansas City Chiefs are by now familiar with the Cincinnati Bengals, imagine how wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is feeling.
This Sunday’s AFC Championship will be Smith-Schuster’s 10th game against the Bengals, his first eight in years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. There are some memorable moments between Cincinnati and him.
Neither of those games reached the stakes this Sunday: a chance to play in the Super Bowl. Smith-Schuster has never made it this far in the postseason, but he likely envisioned that opportunity when he signed with the Chiefs this offseason.
He didn’t try to hide his excitement during his Wednesday press conference — especially when asked about the Chiefs’ offensive game plan.
“It’s fire, it’s fire,” Smith-Schuster said, chuckling. “It’s Andy Reid, it’s Patrick Mahomes, it’s nice.”
Cincinnati’s offensive game plans have worked, especially early in the competition. The Chiefs had leads in the second half of every game but couldn’t maintain them every time.
It’s an admirable Cincinnati trait that the Chiefs are now fully aware of.
“They’re just a physical team,” Smith-Schuster recalled. “They just play physically in all four quarters from start to finish. I’ve seen me play them in Cincinnati; it felt like a playoff atmosphere game. I expect to see that here.”
This physicality can be felt by the individual players. Slots cornerback Mike Hilton is making hits while linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt seem to be everywhere at the same time. The unit is one of the best tackling groups in the NFL.
That gives Chiefs players in the right position a lot of responsibility to overcome aggressive defense.
“The biggest challenge for us is going out and making games,” Smith-Schuster explained. “We have to do our plays. When the ball is thrown to you, make your plays and convert on third downs.
“That is very important for all of us: to be on the same page, to be able to read reports, to know when to stop, when to continue. That’s the biggest thing for us because this defense is really good. You are physically ahead; They change and move a lot. For us, we have to side with Patrick Mahomes.”
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Mahomes was a victim of the Bengals’ defensive success — particularly at last year’s AFC Championship, when the Chiefs’ offense failed to score a touchdown in the second half despite getting to the four-yard line.
Part of what’s stumbling Mahomes is the mixed bag the Bengals’ defensive play seems to be pulling from. Mahomes also had a press conference Wednesday and spoke about the Cincinnati team giving him seizures.
“It’s very game plan specific, it’s never the same,” Mahomes mused. “It could be the same look but different coverage. That’s what a lot of great defensive coordinators do: they’re able to coach their team and do a variety of things, but still be solid…then they have great players who are extremely trainable and do their job the best of their abilities.”
The running game is one of the most consistent parts of the Chiefs’ offense this series. In each of the last three matchups, the Chiefs have rushed for over 100 running backs and averaged at least 5.3 yards per carry.
It wasn’t that big of a part of last week’s divisional round win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, not until it had to be.
“We absolutely have to let the ball run, that’s enormous for us,” emphasized Smith-Schuster. “If (the Chiefs backup quarterback) Chad [Henne] came in, that was our big emphasis: getting the running game going in a way that we could throw the ball deep. It just goes hand in hand when you run and pass the ball.”
If the Chiefs are to avoid a disaster similar to last year’s AFC Championship, they need big input from the players who weren’t involved — like Smith-Schuster. The receiver has many memorable moments against the Bengals, but none compare to a big game against them when it counts.