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Biggest threat to Bengals' AFC title defense: Bills, Chiefs or Dolphins? Why is Derrick Henry slumping?

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:

But first, a look at the current power structure in a loaded AFC ...

It's been a while since the Cincinnati Bengals have been viewed as regular title contenders in the AFC. The days of Forrest Gregg and Sam Wyche barking orders at the Bengals' Super Bowl teams in the 1980s are long gone, but Zac Taylor has taken the baton from Marvin Lewis and reshaped Cincy into a championship-caliber squad.

Last season, the Bengals reached their first Super Bowl in 33 years, with Joe Burrow's explosive offense complementing an opportunistic defense anchored by a disruptive front. If not for a miraculous final drive by Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and the Los Angeles Rams, Cincinnati would have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

Now, after working through an early-season Super Bowl hangover, Cincy's squarely back in the playoff picture, rounding into form as a true powerhouse. Fresh off a third straight victory over the Chiefs this calendar year, the Bengals (8-4) hold the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs. They're just one game out of the top seed, though, and they already have the tiebreaker over the current No. 2 (Kansas City), with Week 17 and 18 home games looming against Nos. 1 (Buffalo) and 3 (Baltimore). So they're right there. And seeing how they're still the defending conference champions, the Bengals look like the team to beat in the AFC.

Wait, WHAT?!

That's right: Bungles no more. Cincinnati remains in the AFC throne, having backed up last season's conference title with eight wins in its last 10 games. Think I'm crazy for pushing these Bengals as the AFC front-runners? Think again. Cincy's explosive offense is more efficient than last season, thanks to an improved line and a more experienced collection of playmakers working their magic on the perimeter. Defensively, the Bengals wreak havoc under the savvy guidance of Lou Anarumo, whose versatile scheme -- dubbed "The Staten Island Stew" in honor of the coordinator's hometown -- gives opponents fits with all of its different looks.

Cincinnati has demons to exorcise this Sunday, with Cleveland riding into town carrying a five-game win streak in the Battle of Ohio. But the Bengals appear to be peaking down the stretch -- again -- which could spawn a second consecutive conference title. That said, the road back to Super Bowl Sunday is fraught with potential pitfalls, as the AFC features a number of heavyweights with the punching power to knock out the Bengals. So, who is the biggest threat to Cincy's AFC title defense? Here are my top three:

Kansas City Chiefs
9-3 · 1st in AFC West

Despite having dropped three straight games to the Bengals in 12 months' time, the Chiefs remain a viable threat to supplant them as AFC Super Bowl representatives. With the most talented quarterback in the league, Andy Reid's team can never be discounted. As a dynamic dual-threat quarterback with A+ arm talent and athleticism, Patrick Mahomes terrorizes opponents when operating on or off script. He forces the defense to defend every blade of grass, given his ability to make every throw in the book from the pocket or on the move. With a dynamic collection of playmakers on the perimeter -- headlined by all-world TE Travis Kelce -- the Chiefs have enough firepower to put up a 40-burger on anyone when the offense is rolling.

If Steve Spagnuolo's defense shows up and shows out behind the stellar play of certified game-wrecker Chris Jones and emerging-star LB Nick Bolton, the Chiefs have the capacity to slow the game down and win a competitive matchup in the fourth quarter behind spectacular quarterbacking from a five-star playmaker in the clutch.

Buffalo Bills
9-3 · 1st in AFC East

The remarkable playmaking skills of Josh Allen give the Bills a chance to overwhelm anyone, Cincy included. The MVP candidate is a unicorn at the position with super-sized physical dimensions and superhero athletic traits. As a highly potent runner and thrower, Allen tests the discipline of the defense each and every snap. With receivers Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis and Isaiah McKenzie capable of winning their one-on-one battles on the perimeter, the Bills put opposing defensive coordinators in a bind when attempting to stymie a sandlot offense directed by an improvisational wizard. Considering the speed, explosiveness and big-play potential across Buffalo's offense, the Bengals might have to outlast the Bills in a shootout, which is never an enviable task.

Furthermore, Leslie Frazier's defense could pose problems for Cincy. The Bengals love to cook up downfield explosives to star receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Buffalo's crafty defensive play-caller will test the discipline and patience of the opposing quarterback by utilizing a variety of umbrella coverages designed to take away the deep ball and limit big plays. The Bills are willing to concede yardage between the 20s, but they find a way to get pivotal stops in the red zone. Of course, the season-ending injury to Von Miller hurts, but Buffalo has seen growth across the defensive front this season, particularly from fourth-year interior disruptor Ed Oliver and second-year edge menace Greg Rousseau.

I can't wait to for Week 17's Monday Night Football showdown between the Bills and Bengals in Cincinnati. That could be the first of two January bouts between these two AFC powers.

Miami Dolphins
8-4 · 2nd in AFC East

Do not let the Dolphins' Week 4 loss to the Bengals fool you into thinking that this is a lopsided matchup in the defending AFC champs' favor. Remember, Tua Tagovailoa was sidelined in the second quarter of that game by a frightening concussion. Despite last week's clunker at San Francisco, Mike McDaniel's squad is an offensive juggernaut with the firepower to top the Bengals in a shootout. The Dolphins' Olympic-level track team on the perimeter will test the speed, athleticism and explosiveness of the secondary on an assortment of vertical and horizontal routes. Tagovailoa will swiftly put the ball in his playmakers' hands on a variety of quicks, RPOs and crossing routes that negate opponents' pressure tactics. In addition, the third-year pro will challenge the discipline and detail of the defense with balanced distribution to Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Trent Sherfield, Mike Gesicki and checkdown options Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr.

Although the Dolphins' defense is not a dominant unit, coordinator Josh Boyer can cook up pressure and deploy sticky coverage when everyone's healthy. This could create problems for an explosive Bengals offense that relies on rhythm and timing.

What's wrong with King Henry?

For the past few seasons, Derrick Henry has been one of the most feared runners in football. He led the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns in 2019 and 2020, and he put up nearly 1,000 yards in 2021 despite being limited to just eight games.

Henry was as productive as ever earlier this year, topping 100 rushing yards in five straight games in October/November. But based on more recent history, it appears the league has finally figured out a way to slow down the seventh-year pro. Over the Titans' past four contests, Henry has averaged just 52 yards per outing. He's averaging a scant 2.8 yards per carry during the slump, seemingly running into a brick wall on every rushing attempt.

We have seen Henry experience similar slumps in the past, but it's rare for the 6-foot-3 247-pounder to fail to crack the 40-yard mark in back-to-back games, as he did in Weeks 12 and 13. Whether facing stacked boxes or unusual defensive fronts designed to clog the running lanes at the point of attack, the veteran has always found a way to power through the muck and move the chains.

To put up the ridiculous numbers Henry has amassed in his career, a running back must be able to overcome "plus-one" boxes and five-man lines. That's what makes one element of his current struggles so surprising: Henry has seen an uptick in light boxes (six or fewer defenders) and a decrease in loaded boxes (more defenders than blockers) in recent weeks. According to Next Gen Stats, Henry has faced light boxes on 25.3 percent of snaps in Weeks 10-13, compared to 21.9 percent in his first eight games of the season. And opponents have trotted out loaded boxes on just 29.3 percent of the Titans' offensive snaps during Weeks 10-13, compared to 36.6 percent utilization in Weeks 1-9.

Those trends buck conventional wisdom when it comes to defending a top-notch running game. But the Titans' injury woes and a lack of dependable perimeter weapons offer some hints as to what's going on.

The offensive line has been a revolving door, with bruised and battered players moving in and out of the lineup each week. Tennessee lost left tackle Taylor Lewan for the season in Week 2, while center Ben Jones and right guard Nate Davis have missed time due to various ailments, leading the Titans to reshuffle the O-line deck so many times that it's hard to remember which quintet comprises a starting lineup. Tennessee has been pummeled at the point of attack by ultra-physical defensive lines, without opponents having to commit extra defenders to the box. Henry has been unable to get started on his runs, due to the constant penetration and disruption in the backfield.

The struggles of the O-line also have enabled opponents to play more coverage-based schemes to neutralize the play-action passes that would typically create more running room for Henry. As teams feature more split-safety looks with two-deep coverage or "quarters" concepts employed, Ryan Tannehill is unable to unleash the kinds of deep balls that would normally back defenders up and force defensive coordinators to reconsider their game plans. Tannehill is surely not helped in this cause by Tennessee's current collection of pass-catchers, none of whom has logged more than 33 catches or 359 receiving yards so far this season.

To combat the strategies opponents are utilizing to slow down Henry and Co., offensive coordinator Todd Downing could tweak his personnel packages and formation alignments to alter the chess match at the line of scrimmage. By incorporating more motions, shifts and heavy personnel packages, Downing could force defensive coordinators to adopt some matchup strategies that would play in the Titans' favor.

In addition, Tennessee has to demand a little more from its star running back to help the Titans work through an offensive slump that has seen them average just 13 points and fewer than 300 yards over the past two games, both losses. Great runners find ways to create space or pick up extra yardage through sheer force or wiggle, and Henry must take his game up a notch to help Tennessee get back on track offensively.

The Titans also need their RB1 to run through some of the arm tackles and glancing blows that have taken him down in recent weeks. He cannot go down at first contact. His recent dip in yards after contact -- Henry has averaged 2.4 yards after contact per carry in Weeks 10-13 after posting a 4.0 figure in Weeks 1-9, per Next Gen Stats -- suggests that he is not running with the usual urgency or physicality.

With a favorable schedule on the horizon featuring games against teams that have struggled to slow him down in the past (vs. Jaguars, at Chargers and vs. Texans), Henry must continue to pound the rock as the designated sledgehammer and rediscover the form that has helped him carry the team in the past. Otherwise, Tennessee -- which has lost three of its last five to fall to 7-5 -- could miss the playoffs one season after being the AFC's No. 1 seed.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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