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Normally when one team looks across the field to the other sideline it sees the opponent and not a lot more. But on Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals look across Paul Brown Stadium field and see the Kansas City Chiefs, they just might be looking at, well, their future.
Both good and bad.
The Chiefs, we all know, have been a dominant team for several years with trips to consecutive Super Bowls and even a championship after the 2019 regular season. Their young quarterback is a star surrounded by a wealth of fully formed, completely proven playmakers.
That’s why the Chiefs have won the AFC West six consecutive years and are currently the AFC’s No. 1 seed for the coming playoffs.
The Bengals are talented and filled with possibilities but they’re really mostly cubs. A victory Sunday would deliver their first division title since 2015.
So can the Bengals grow into a team like the Chiefs?
It says here they’re on their way. And it begins at quarterback.
Sunday will allow us a comparison of Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow — an established versus a budding star.
“Not only is he a great football player, I think he’s a great leader,” Mahomes said of his Bengals counterpart this week. “He has that special knack where he can lead anybody. No matter where he’s at, he can go out there with that swag, that mentality of ‘I’m going to win no matter what.’
“It takes a lot of experience and it takes a lot of just going out there and doing it for people to believe that. He has that as well as the physical talent to go out there and make a lot of stuff happen.”
Burrow is coming off a 525-yard passing performance against the Baltimore Ravens. But it’s not just about him.
The Bengals have a 1,000-yard receiver in rookie Ja’Marr Chase.
The Bengals have a 1,000-yard receiver in second-year player Tee Higgins.
The Bengals have a 1,000-yard rusher in running back Joe Mixon.
And Burrow is one of only seven NFL quarterbacks to eclipse 4,000 passing yards so far.
It all speaks to a team that is No. 7 in the NFL in scoring and can legitimately expect to keep up with the Chiefs on the scoreboard — something Burrow believes has to happen this game to keep up with Mahomes.
“That’s safe to say,” he said. “They’re one of the best offenses in the league since he’s been the starting quarterback so we’re going in expecting having to score a lot of points and we’ll adapt accordingly.”
The Bengals’ season has been a roller coaster one might expect of a young team: A couple of wins followed by a couple of losses, followed by a couple of wins, followed by losses. The team has won two in a row, and the final two games will determine how much the Bengals have matured.
“I think we have to maintain this momentum that we have from the last few weeks,” Burrow said. “We’re moving the ball really well on offense right now. We’ve got a good groove, running and throwing the football. We’ve just got to maintain the momentum, have a great week of practice and come out ready to go on Sunday.”
Burrow leads the NFL with an 8.7 yard per pass attempt average. That speaks to his ability to throw and complete deep passes, something that was doubted earlier this season and last year.
“The offensive line is playing a lot better. They’re giving me more time in the pocket,” Burrow said, offering the reasons for his deep game improvement. “We drafted this guy named Ja’Marr Chase that is really good down the field and Tee Higgins has become one of the premier 50-50 ball catchers in the league.
“And you have [Tyler Boyd] that’s gotten really good at run-after-the-catch in the middle of the field so, I mean, we’re pretty explosive right now.”
But that’s not all. Burrow believes his arm, which by the way, helped him win the Heisman Trophy and become the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, has improved.
“It’s definitely stronger than it was last year,” he said. “And it’s something that’s going to continue to get better after every offseason that I have.”
Mahomes is 10th in the NFL with a 7.4 yard per pass attempt average and the primary reason for that good-not-great number is defenses have made it their business to play coverages that prevent deep completions.
Mahomes has learned to beat that tactic by showing patience throwing shorter passes but that has affected his deep pass stats.
“You kind of figure out answers and stuff you can do to combat and have more success,” he said. “I think just finding that happy median where you’re taking shots still and attacking, but at the same time, hitting guys underneath and guys are creating a lot of yards with the football in their hands. Like the running backs, tight ends and receivers so just getting the ball out of my hands, getting to those guys for them to make plays.”
And this is where we discuss the Bengals’ future challenges on offense. The same teams that realized the best way to slow the Chiefs is to play shell coverages are eventually going to treat the Bengals the same way.
Burrow, full of confidence, doesn’t believe that’s going to be an issue because as defenses adjust he and his teammates are still improving, honing their games.
“We understand the kind of throw that we need to make against different leverages and techniques that the corner plays,” Burrow said. “We just have a lot more reps accumulated throughout the season to understand those situations and we know we can throw it against just about any coverage that we face.”
So what happens next? Can the Bengals develop into the Chiefs, at least on offense?
“…We know what we can be,” Burrow said. “We know we have to get better so we’re going to continue to do that.”
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero