The Chiefs say they’ve ‘forgotten’ about the Bengals. Here’s why it’s not that easy

Jeff Dean/AP

The news conference had run a handful of minutes, long enough to incorporate four questions about the Cincinnati Bengals, when Chiefs coach Andy Reid tried to ensure there would not be a fifth.

“Listen, we’re past the Bengals. I’m way past that,” he said, adding, “You’re asking me questions about them, but you’re asking me to forget about them. So, they’re forgotten.”

Long gone is “On to Cincinnati.”

The new rage: On from Cincinnati.

The message illuminating from One Arrowhead Drive began with Reid this week, but quarterback Patrick Mahomes, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and safety Justin Reid echoed it in some form with the ensuing 24 hours. It is a public-facing memorandum, but no make mistake — it’s purpose is to land inside those walls.

Won’t be that easy.

Much as the Chiefs want to move on, they cannot escape last Sunday’s 27-24 defeat in Cincinnati, mostly because they have not yet been able to escape the Bengals.

Not all losses are created equally. Do you really believe no one on that 53-man roster has considered that one of the teams they can face in the playoffs has beaten them three times in the span of 11 months?

To be clear, the point of their across-the-board messaging remains logical, albeit obvious. As Mahomes would put it, if you don’t turn the attention to Denver, “you’re going to make one loss turn into two.”

But there will be no mind-erasing the Bengals, because that team could still be looming next month.

Thing is, though, they shouldn’t want to. Cincinnati provided a facts-gathering opportunity, and those facts are all pointing in one direction:

The Chiefs are the team with a bit of catching-up to do in December — and yes, it’s just a bit — though lucky enough to still have the time to do it. That’s not a sentence we’ve used much over the past three seasons, but better to know the specifics now than later, even if the margin is indeed slim.

It’s not that the Bengals beat the Chiefs.

It’s how.

While every team on the losing end of a close game can and will point to a couple of plays here or there — the Chiefs do have that Travis Kelce fumble, after all, and they were missing their two players who can stretch the field horizontally — the Bengals were just plain better. Better than a year ago. Better than the Chiefs on that day.

Kansas City did not lose solely because of self-inflicted mistakes — like in Indianapolis — that will just require some cleaning up. Instead, the Bengals robbed the Chiefs of their non-quarterback biggest threats — Kelce on offense, Chris Jones on defense — and ran roughshod on the remaining parts. That attempt, you could say, just might pop up again, whether it’s against the Bengals or elsewhere.

And that’s the piece they’d be wise not to forget.

Sure, the collection of the Broncos, Raiders, Seahawks and Texans might not be talented enough on both sides of the football to pull that off over these final five games on the schedule. But you can bet some teams that await in January will be. The Bengals think they are.

Actually, they know they are.

The Chiefs are no longer the feared team in football. Their defending Super Bowl champion tag expired two years ago, and the paint of that target on their proverbial backs is chipping around the edges.

This isn’t some reckoning but rather a foreseeable fallout from an offseason blueprint that included moving Tyreek Hill to South Beach — a consequence that is still worth accepting, but a consequence they must deal with nonetheless. The Bengals made this all most evident, initially in the result but even more so in their reaction to it.

“This is what we visualized entirely,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said before even being prompted with a question Sunday.

“They’ve got to come play us,” said Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai, who recorded the third-down sack on Mahomes on the Chiefs’ final drive, adding. “They’ve got to respond to us.”

The Chiefs can stand to benefit from the big-picture lesson of it all, starting this weekend in Denver, and Ossai just perfectly outlined how.

Those quotes should stand out, plastered not on bulletin boards but inside educational brochures that can guide the Chiefs over the final five weeks, their preparation for a playoff run.

Adjust. Respond.

The Bengals made the Chiefs play without Kelce, foreshadowing a hurdle the offense must leap in its stiffest challenges. Cincinnati shaded not only its best defenders toward him but threw numbers at the problem. Who cares if it meant only sending three pass rushers?

Or, as Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton framed it, they made the Chiefs play left-handed. This is not a revelation — other teams have made the Chiefs drive left to get the hoop, too — but its success rate should catch their attention. The Chiefs insist every game provides a lesson, win or lose, but none are more valuable than the losses that come from teams that have the same end-of-season visions you do.

The Chiefs have five weeks to fine-tune their Plan B for the teams that want to take away their Plan A (Kelce). Five weeks to work on going left.

The defense will have the same objective — if a team is willing to throw all of its weight toward making Chris Jones a non-factor, how else can you flip a game? Those answers aren’t obvious.

The Chiefs can slow the Broncos without Jones getting into the backfield. They can score on the Seahawks without Kelce going for 100 yards and a touchdown. But both teams are good enough on one side of the ball. The Broncos lack the offense to be a playoff contender, but their third-ranked defense just might see if they can force the Chiefs to dribble left.

The Chiefs should hope they do.

Their focus might rest squarely in Denver — or so the attempt goes — but nothing would be more beneficial than some playoff preparation.

Because, in the end, this is not doom-and-gloom. Far from it, actually. It’s a silver lining, and the best time to gather some intel. The Chiefs can still win a Super Bowl, even in a year in which all of the above is true. Heck, they still have a pretty foreseeable path to regaining the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Their goals remain in front of them, as they say, but that pesky team just might await in front of them, too. Or at least the strategy that pesky team implemented.

The escape — forgetting about the Bengals — might be temporary.

The effects of that game, if used properly, could be permanent.