Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have been in five straight home-field AFC Championship games and won two out of the last four Super Bowls (and attended three of the last four). Quite simply, they have what the Bengals want.
Last year's pre-game AFC Championship smack talk returned to haunt the Bengals. Celebrating their win, the Chiefs launched into a WWE-style celebration at the Lamar Hunt Trophy ceremony filled with expletives, a deserving takedown of the Cincinnati mayor, and what followed was an epic Twitter storm of crap from the Chiefs faithful.
The Bengals might have won three out of the last four, but, all four have come down to three points. These games are more than just games. They are epic battles with twists, turns, changes in momentum, and drama.
Last year's AFC Championship game lived up to the hype with an injury-ridden offensive line being the undoing of the Bengals' Super Bowl hopes. Given the ball with a chance to win the game, Joe Burrow was unable to overcome the Chiefs' interior pass rush. A line-drive punt, a significant return, and a poor decision by Joseph Ossai sent the Bengals packing.
It will be up to the Bengals this time to reinvent what they are doing and come back stronger. Next year's game should be the key in the fight for home-field advantage. Playing at Arrowhead yearly to get to the Super Bowl is a major impediment. The Bengals need to get home-field from Kansas City. To do that, they need to win the regular season game with the Chiefs once more.
To get back the advantage, they will have to beef up their offensive line. The first step, signing Orlando Brown Jr. from the Chiefs is going to be an epic addition to the rivalry. The 6'8" 340 pound left tackle was a big addition for Cincinnati and a big subtraction for Kansas City, even if it appeared they were moving on from him regardless.
As if things needed to be jacked to a higher level, the Chiefs will be geared up for what they consider a turncoat. Nevertheless, Brown will provide the Bengals with solid left tackle play they missed in the regular season and playoffs last year.
The next step is for defense. The Bengals are losing their bookend safeties and PhD's in Lou Anarumo's "Mad Scientist" defense. When you are facing the returning MVP, that will be a big step to overcome. Nick Scott and Dax Hill will have to be quick studies, but, hopefully, when they are out of position their improved speed will be there to make up for mistakes.
The most important area to improve on the defense against Kansas City will be the interior pass rush. Patrick Mahomes killed them, not by escaping the pocket, but, by stepping up into it. Without the interior rushers collapsing it turned into multiple heroic touchdowns by the reigning MVP.
By scheme or in the draft the Bengals will have to find a way to collapse that pocket. Not since Larry Ogunjobi was on the line did the Bengals have an interior pass rush. Fixing that will be the key to taking down Kansas City once again.
So, for the most important game of the 2023 season it is, of course, the Chiefs. They have the trophy. They have the bragging rights.
In the 2023 regular season the Bengals will not be able to take the trophy away, but, they can take the most essential step toward getting back to the Super Bowl; home-field advantage in the playoffs.