If you think the Kansas City Chiefs are familiar with the Cincinnati Bengals by now, imagine how wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster feels.
This Sunday’s AFC Championship will Smith-Schuster’s 10th matchup with the Bengals, the first eight coming in the years he played with the Pittsburgh Steelers. There are some memorable moments between Cincinnati and him.
None of those games have measured up to the stakes this Sunday’s has: a chance to play in the Super Bowl. Smith-Schuster has never reached this far into the postseason, but this opportunity was something he likely imagined when he signed with the Chiefs this offseason.
He didn’t try to hide his excitement during his press conference on Wednesday — especially when asked about the Chiefs’ offensive game plan.
“It’s fire, it’s fire,” Smith-Schuster said between giggles. “It’s Andy Reid, it’s Patrick Mahomes, it’s nice.”
The game plans on offense for Cincinnati have found success, especially early in the contests. The Chiefs have had leads in the second half of each game but have failed to maintain them each time.
It’s an admirable trait of Cincinnati’s, one that the Chiefs are fully aware of by now.
“They’re just a physical team,” Smith-Schuster recalled. “They just play physical from start to finish, for all four quarters. I saw him playing them in Cincinnati; it felt like a playoff-atmosphere game. That’s what I’m expecting to see here.”
That physicality can be felt by the individual players. Slot cornerback Mike Hilton can pack a punch with his hits, while linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt seem to be everywhere at once. The unit is one of the best tackle groups in the NFL.
That puts a lot of responsibility on the Chiefs’ skill-position players to overcome the aggressive defense.
“The biggest challenge for us is to go out there and make plays,” Smith-Schuster declared. We have to execute our plays. When the ball is thrown to you, make your plays, convert on third downs.”
“That’s very important for all of us: being on the same page, being able to read coverages, knowing when to stop, when to keep running. That’s the biggest thing for us, because this defense is really good. They’re physical up front; they change and move around a lot. For us, we have to be on the same page with Patrick Mahomes.”
Mahomes has been a victim of the Bengals’ defensive success — specifically in last year’s AFC Championship, when the Chiefs’ offense failed to score a touchdown in the second half, despite getting as close as the four-yard line.
Part of what trips Mahomes up is the mixed bag that the Bengals’ defensive play calling seems to pull from. Mahomes also had a press conference on Wednesday and talked through the Cincinnati team that had given him fits.
“It’s very game-plan specific, it’s never the same,” Mahomes reflected. It could be the same look, but a different coverage. It’s what a lot of great defensive coordinators do: they’re able to coach their team up and do a variety of stuff, but still be voice in it… then they have great players, that are extremely coachable and do their job to the best of their ability.”
The running game is one of the most consistent parts of the Chiefs’ offense in this series. In each of the last three matchups, running backs for the Chiefs totaled over 100 yards while also averaging at least 5.3 yards per carry.
It wasn’t as big a part of last week’s Divisional round win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, not until it needed to be.
“We definitely have to run the ball, that’s huge for us,” Smith-Schuster pointed out. When (Chiefs’ backup quarterback) Chad [Henne] came in, that was our big emphasis: being able to get the running game going just so we can throw the ball deep. It just goes hand in hand when you run and pass the ball.”
If the Chiefs want to avoid a similar disaster as last year’s AFC Championship, they will need big-time contributions from the players that weren’t a part of it — like Smith-Schuster. The receiver has many memorable moments against the Bengals, but none compares to a big game against them when it matters most.