RB Index, Championship Sunday: QBs headline juicy AFC title game, but running backs will decide winner

The football world should get a healthy dose of ground-based offense in Championship Sunday’s opening matchup between San Francisco and Philadelphia, as those two NFC powers boast rushing attacks that ranked in the top 10 during the regular season. No one will be surprised if the running backs — Christian McCaffrey and Miles Sanders, among others — headline that contest.

The AFC Championship Game is different. It features a highly anticipated quarterback showdown between Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. These two MVP candidates are the clear headliners of their second consecutive Championship Sunday meeting — and understandably so, as Mahomes is arguably the best quarterback in the game right now, yet Burrow owns a 3-0 record in head-to-head matchups.

But I have a take that is sure to ruffle some feathers: The celebrated signal-callers ultimately won’t determine who represents the AFC next month in Super Bowl LVII.

Based on what I’ve seen down the stretch and throughout the playoffs thus far, the running backs will decide the outcome of Sunday’s Bengals-Chiefs clash. So let’s talk about the key figures in each backfield: Kansas City’s Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon vs. Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.

The Chiefs have received major contributions this season from both the seventh-round rookie and the ninth-year veteran, with Pacheco earning his keep between the tackles and McKinnon making his money in the pass game. Since Week 9, McKinnon ranks second in the NFL in yards per scrimmage play (6.6) and Pacheco ranks 11th (5.35) among those with a minimum of 80 touches. McKinnon also comfortably led all running backs with nine receiving touchdowns during the regular season (tied for sixth-most among all players).

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Pacheco has made the most of his opportunity, which spawned from 2020 first-rounder Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s ineffectiveness and injury. The tough runner gave the Chiefs’ offense more balance down the stretch, piling up the fifth-most rushing yards league-wide (633) from Week 10 through Week 18. As good as he was in the regular season, Pacheco really came through for K.C. with a stellar performance when the Chiefs needed it most: in last Saturday’s Divisional Round tilt against the Jacksonville Jaguars. With Mahomes sustaining a high ankle sprain that kept him out a majority of the second quarter, Pacheco was instrumental in a Chad Henne-led 98-yard scoring drive, accounting for 57 yards on the march, including a 39-yard lightning strike. Pacheco finished the contest with 101 scrimmage yards, his most since Week 11, while averaging a robust 7.9 yards per carry.

McKinnon had pretty quiet day against Jacksonville, rushing 11 times for 25 yards, but he played an enormous role in Kansas City’s five-game winning streak to close the regular season, which allowed the Chiefs to claim the AFC”s No. 1 seed — and consequently host this week’s game. From Week 14 through Week 18, McKinnon scored eight touchdowns, with seven coming through the air. Oh, and in last year’s AFC title bout against Cincy, McKinnon ran for 65 yards on 12 carries (5.4 yards a pop) and caught three passes for 30 yards.

Mahomes is on track to start Sunday’s game, but high ankle sprains don’t magically heal in a week’s time. The all-world quarterback is going to need help from his friends, particularly his backfield mates in Pacheco and McKinnon.

Meanwhile, the Bengals present an imposing RB duo of their own in Mixon and Perine, whose respective skill sets complement each other quite nicely. While Perine has been an asset in pass protection and on third down, Mixon was a big-time playmaker in last week’s statement-making win at Buffalo. Aided by a big day from the Bengals’ surprisingly dominant offensive line, Mixon led all players in rushing first downs in the Divisional Round while averaging a season-high 2.6 yards before contact per rush, according to Next Gen Stats — a huge improvement from the 0.9 figure recorded over his other 15 games this season (including Super Wild Card Weekend). Pacing Cincy’s offense throughout the 27-10 win over the Bills, Mixon carried the ball 20 times for 105 yards and a touchdown. It was just his second 100-yard rushing performance of this season — and his first time across the century mark in six career postseason games. Having a guy like Mixon — who can take pressure off his quarterback by gaining chunk yards, setting up the play-action pass and controlling the clock — is so important at this point in the season.

Perine has established himself as a rock-solid RB2 who does all of the dirty work with aplomb, but don’t overlook his ability to truly make his mark. The Chiefs’ defense certainly won’t. After all, Perine played a starring role in Cincinnati’s 27-24 win over Kansas City back in Week 13. With Mixon inactive due to a concussion, Perine carried the ball 21 times for 106 yards and caught six passes for 49 yards, giving him a career-high 155 scrimmage yards.

Again, as we head into an enticing showdown for the AFC crown, Mahomes and Burrow undoubtedly top the marquee. But don’t be surprised when the running backs own the night.

Follow Maurice Jones-Drew on Twitter.

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