The Chiefs, with their 22-17 survival over the Browns in the AFC divisional playoffs on Sunday, advanced to host the expected No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup against the Bills in next week’s AFC championship game. Kansas City should feel good about that, and its chances to get a shot to repeat as NFL champions in Super Bowl 55.
Assuming quarterback Patrick Mahomes is cleared to play.
Mahomes and the Chiefs won rather comfortably when visiting Buffalo in Week 6 of the regular season — 26-17 — by pulling away in the second half. The score may not have screamed dominance, but the Chiefs were in complete control of the game, outgaining the Bills 446-206 in total yardage.
Although the Chiefs got good enough play in a quarter-plus from Chad Henne after Mahomes was concussed against the Browns, they can’t expect to win with a second-string quarterback against the second-best team in the conference. With Mahomes, however, tight end Travis Kelce, the running game and the defense all will remain big problems for Buffalo. And this time, Kansas City also has the home-field advantage.
Mahomes had a highly efficient performance against the Bills (21 of 26, 225 yards, two touchdowns, 8.7 yards per attempt, 128.4 passer rating) with Kelce (five catches, 65 yards) getting both scores in Week 6. The Bills were the worst overall tight end defense in the NFL during the regular season, giving up an average of six catches for 62 yards to the position. Nothing has to give there a second time vs. Kelce.
The Chiefs also destroyed the Bills’ weak run defense in the first meeting, racking up 245 yards rushing. Rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who pounded out 161 of those yards, may not return for the rematch. But the Chiefs proved they can be effective running the ball with veteran reserves, including Darrel Williams in the role of Damien Williams this year. Darrel Williams (13 carries, 78 of the Chiefs’ game-high 123 rushing yards) was key to beating the Browns with no Mahomes to close.
Because of that, the Chiefs held the ball for nearly 38 minutes and also converted 64 percent of their third downs in Week 6. The Bills got worn down up front and had little pressure on Mahomes.
That also set up ideal complementary football for the Chiefs defense, which just had a jolt of confidence after holding down the Browns when Mahomes’ absence suddenly put the game in doubt. The Chiefs had their usual troubles against the run vs. the Browns, but they were mostly on point with their downfield coverage against Baker Mayfield.
They did something similar to Josh Allen in the first meeting. They also don’t need to worry about anything other than Allen on the ground against a limited and often non-existent traditional running game.
Safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen, coming off big games against the Browns, do well in containing the middle, where Allen likes to go when top wide receiver Stefon Diggs can’t break free for big plays on the perimeter. The Chiefs didn’t sack Allen once in the first meeting, but Frank Clark had one of his better pass-rushing games off the edge.
If Henne’s in there, the Bills can load up to stop the run first without having to worry as much whether Kelce or Tyreek Hill will burn them in the intermediate-to-deep middle. Mahomes would put the Bills in a bind, as they can’t afford to let Hill run free deep, at the expense of making sure they don’t get run all over again defensively.
Allen figures to play much better than he did in Week 6 (14 of 27, 122 yards, touchdown, interception, 4.5 yards per attempt, 73.4 rating), as he worked to fight through that midseason slump and get back into the MVP conversation. That said, he got away with a bad performance that wasn’t much better (23 of 37, 206 yards, touchdown, 5.3 yards per attempt, 86.1 rating) in Saturday’s 17-3 win over the Ravens.
The Chiefs and Bills came through with wins that were much lower-scoring and grittier than expected in the divisional round. Both games were decided by only one or two plays that went in the victorious teams’ favor. But there’s no doubt the Chiefs’ running game defense combination was much more impressive than Bills, by the numbers.
Kansas City is better at winning battles of attrition and is the more battled-test team. They have experience winning games in every which way with Mahomes in the AFC playoffs, including in Super Bowl 54. Buffalo has had a big playoff breakthrough this season, but the team is neither ready nor complete enough to take down the champion — at full strength.