Deja vu all over again: Until proven otherwise, Bengals are just better than Chiefs

Eleven months ago here at Paycor Stadium, the Chiefs zoomed out to a 21-7 lead only to melt in the second half and lose 34-31.

“You learn from it, as coaches and players,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said at the time. “That’s all you can do right now.”

At the time, it seemed like an anomaly. The Chiefs won their next three, including an epic overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills, to earn a berth in their fourth straight AFC Championship Game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.

But even bolstered by the intensity of the opportunity for redemption against the Bengals and whatever they learned from the first go-round with Cincinnati, the Chiefs bungled away an 18-point lead and fell 34-31 in overtime.

Any season-ending defeat is bitter, but this one spurred a range of offseason changes and left Reid in August talking about the team’s need to play with a “certain attitude, a certain edge” that they didn’t maintain in the crucible.

So here they were up against the Bengals again on Sunday in a game that the Chiefs had emotionally circled, underscored, red-lettered or otherwise highlighted for months.

Surely, this would be the one that demonstrated nobody has a whammy on them and, of course, that they’re ultimately the better team.

But that tidy tale didn’t happen at all.

Because the Bengals stiff-armed the Chiefs 27-24.

We could rationalize it away as a quirk that makes the Bengals some combination of Kryptonite, nemesis and Achilles’ heel for the Chiefs — who have won 20 of their last 22 games against everyone else and might well have won the Super Bowl last season if they’d gotten past the scourge of the Bengals.

Here’s the thing, though:

You lose to a team three straight times in a calendar year, that’s not a fluke or a coincidence but a trend.

And losing again now to the defending AFC champions, especially after they achieved that at your expense and you have everything to play for now, is about more than just a curious matchup differential.

It says the Bengals (8-4) are the better team until the Chiefs (9-3) prove otherwise after administering a defeat on Sunday that left the Chiefs back behind Buffalo (by virtue of the tiebreaker) for the AFC No. 1 seed and first-round playoff bye.

That doesn’t mean that the Chiefs can’t beat the Bengals or won’t beat them if and when they meet again in the postseason.

After all, Sunday’s game came down to slivers and microfibers in certain ways, from the terrific third-and-11 pass for 14 yards from a rushed Joe Burrow to a covered Tee Higgins that put it away … to a fumble while rambling for extra yardage by the superlative Travis Kelce … and Harrison Butker’s missed 55-yard field goal.

Any of those go things differently, this game might have ended otherwise.

But what this does mean is that the burden of proof is firmly on the Chiefs in this suddenly one-way series that makes for an entirely foreign dynamic of the dominant Mahomes Era.

Not that they’re publicly acknowledging this reverse phenomenon.

No sense in giving it more life, after all.

“Ah, this one came right down to the end; I don’t feel that way,” Reid said. “I think it’s (just) two good football teams playing each other. We’ve got to take care of business down the stretch. Last couple of series, we’ve got to take care of business.”

But the way there also went awry for the Chiefs.

They once again were bedeviled by Burrow, who too often had an absurd amount of time to throw, and by big-time catches by his receivers. By contrast, Mahomes was harassed early and often and finished with season lows of 16 completions and 223 yards.

What? How? Why?

The Bengals, Mahomes said, are tough on the Chiefs because they’ve got a great quarterback and great playmakers and a well-coached and good defense.

“And at the end of the day,” he added, “they’ve executed at a higher level in the critical situations.”

For that matter, it looked that way from the other side of the ball.

In a nearly empty locker room long after the game, defensive end Frank Clark gave the Bengals well-deserved props and put it well when he said, “Everything they did today prevented us from winning the game. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due.”

Having said that, he was also right when he added this:

“At the end of the day,” he said, “it’s about us.”

Not generating enough consistent pressure. Failing to contain Burrow on the ground (46 yards). Missed tackles. Crucial penalties. And then some.

“We just didn’t do our job,” he said, later adding, “We weren’t prepared enough. We didn’t prepare ourselves well enough to execute on all cylinders.”

Even if you understood he simply meant they weren’t prepared well enough to contain the Bengals, that was a striking thing to hear.

Especially under the circumstances.

So now the best thing the Chiefs have going for them when it comes to the Bengals is what Clark called a “sour feeling” in their mouths.

The same one they’ve had for a while now … and hope once again to get to purge in the near future.

“At the end of the day, you want to see a team like this (again),” Clark said. “I’ve got a lot of pride in myself, and I’ve got a lot of pride in my team.

“Today wasn’t (our) best effort. We didn’t display true Chiefs’ football today. We’ve got a long season left, and I guarantee we won’t put on a display like that again.”

Or as Reid rather familiarly put it:

“We’ll go back and work on it and make sure that we learn from it,” he said. “And we’ll try to become a better team.”

And gird themselves for a change of approach that doesn’t let this become deja vu all over again next time around.