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NFL: AFC Championship Game preview

It's hard to say which team should be the favourite when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

The Bengals have beaten the Chiefs three straight times, including at Arrowhead Stadium in last year's title game, but Kansas City appear to have no weaknesses.

Well, that was until Patrick Mahomes injured his ankle against the Jacksonville Jaguars last weekend - raising concerns about how his throwing action or mobility could be affected for this Sunday's crunch clash. 

WhatCincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs
WhereArrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
When23:30, Sunday 29th January, 2023
How to watchSky Sports NFL, NFL Game Pass & bet365 Sports Live Streaming
OddsCIN Bengals 10/11, KC Chiefs 10/11

Mahomes' ankle sprain makes rivals joint-favourites

Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of the Chiefs 27-20 win over Jacksonville last Saturday and, although he briefly left the game for X-rays, the All-Pro quarterback returned in the second half to lead Kansas City to a fifth straight conference title game.

He partook in the team's walkthrough on Wednesday morning and intends to practice as usual in the days leading up to the game, sounding bullish to the media about his prospects of starting as normal.

Mahomes said the injury is similar to one he played through early in the 2019 season, when he showed no ill effects by throwing four touchdown passes in the second quarter of the following week's win over the Oakland Raiders.

But there is no doubt that this injury has spooked a few who were ready to make Kansas City favourites on Sunday and the Chiefs are now 5/2 to win the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs are now the slight +1 point underdogs on the Spread, although the two teams can't be separated on the Money Line at 10/11 each.

Chiefs still haunted by immobile Mahomes' Super Bowl showing

Nobody will truly know how Mahomes deals with limited mobility in his ankle and potentially diminished throwing power until he is forced out of the pocket or into a scramble situation.

He can be a very good pocket passer, but what elevates him to God-like status among modern quarterbacks is his ability to make off-platform throws and extend plays long enough for receivers to get open downfield, which can be back-breaking for any defence.

The Bengals have made him struggle even when he is fully healthy - limiting him to just 16 completions in their 27-24 win over the Chiefs in Ohio early last month.

He has been sacked six times across their last two meetings and was outshone by a near-perfect Joe Burrow in last year's Week 17 clash. 

The Chiefs Kingdom can be forgiven for recalling the last time they saw Mahomes try to play in a big game with an injury - when he threw two picks while also getting sacked three times in a 31-9 upset to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV.

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Bengals bare their teeth on both sides of the ball

After restricting the Buffalo Bills to a season-low tally of 10 points and making Josh Allen look bad last week, the Bengals' defence is going to have a lot of confidence going into this game.

But they don't have to do all of the heavy lifting because Burrow and the track team of wide receivers that he has to throw to can do a pretty good job of pushing the score beyond Kansas CIty's reach too.

Despite running back Joe Mixon's success in Buffalo, Zac Taylor may look for Cincinnati's trio of superstar wide receivers to do the damage to a Chiefs' defence that has allowed more passing touchdowns than any other team this season.

Ja'Marr Chase, who has hauled in 24 receptions from 29 targets for 417 yards and four touchdowns in those three recent Bengals-Chiefs matchups, will draw a lot of double coverage.

Chiefs must attack depleted Cincinnati O-line

The Chiefs will have to limit Burrow's time in the pocket with their solid pass rush that takes on a banged-up Bengals o-line.

It ranked 31st in pass-block win rate going into the Divisional Round and could still be without starting right guard Alex Cappa (ankle) and left tackle Jonah Williams (knee), who missed practice on Wednesday.

Center Ted Karras (knee) was a full participant while cornerback Tre Flowers, who also missed last week's game against the Bills with a hamstring issue, was listed as limited.

Bengals the pick to retain conference crown

The fitness of Mahomes affects everything here from the betting angle and any lingering doubts over him make Cincinnati the clear pregame play at 10/11 on the Money Line.

If he cannot scramble or get anything going outside the pocket, the Bengals will stack the box to deny the Chiefs' run game - admirably led by rookie Isiah Pacheco last week - the chance to get them into manageable third-and-short situations.

The Chiefs are is 13-1 this season when rushing for 70+ yards, but their only loss came against Cincinnati in Week 13.

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