Mahomes suffered a blow to his head and neck during KC’s 22-17 win over the Cleveland Browns in the Divisional Round. Chad Henne filled in and he has enough experience for the Bills not to be lulled into a false sense of security if the former Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars starter is under center.
Buffalo’s best bet would be to bank on Mahomes making it through concussion protocol to start his third conference title game in a row. Bills’ head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are two of the brightest minds in the game, and they’ll surely craft a sophisticated pressure package to keep last season’s Super Bowl MVP off his game.
The blitz will also be on Allen’s mind. Buffalo’s dual-threat quarterback has been sensational during the playoffs, but he’s facing a Chiefs defense with no shortage of playmakers along the front and in the secondary. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is a master of disguising pressure to make elite quarterbacks look ordinary in big games.
Here are three keys for each team to win and advance to Super Bowl LV, starting with the Bills.
Plan for Mahomes and send pressure early
Planning for Mahomes makes sense since Andy Reid confirmed his quarterback was an active participant in practice this week:
Andy Reid on Patrick Mahomes: "Pat looked good out there. … He's moving around well. He feels good. It's just important we follow the protocol, and that's what we're doing."
— Sam McDowell (@SamMcDowell11) January 21, 2021
Everybody is holding their breath. I will say this; over the last few years in the NFL, it’s rare that guys stay in concussion protocol and miss a game.
I’m never going to lack sensitivity towards someone’s head, but it wasn’t the most egregious, worst-looking hit we’ve ever seen before, so I would think that when Sunday comes around, he’s ready to go and ready to roll.
If Mahomes does play, he’s likely to be tested by pressure early and often. Blitzing the Chiefs is usually a recipe for disaster, but it’ll be a different story if the main man’s not at full strength.
McDermott and Frazier craft some of the most creative pressure schemes in the league. Their imagination and daring help some solid players perform above expectations.
BUF’s blitz rate last night — 41.3%
Heated-up BAL with edge pressures. Rush with contain. And keep Lamar in the pocket.
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) January 17, 2021
McDermott and Frazier need to be brave enough to put a similar barrier around Mahomes, take away his lanes of escape, and test his decision-making post-injury.
Hit and double Kelce every play
Hill’s the big-play merchant, but Kelce’s the safety valve Chiefs QBs look to when they’re in trouble. The Bills have to beat up the NFL’s best tight end and put a crowd around him on every play.
Buffalo’s defense has the athletes at the linebacker level capable of shadowing No. 87. Tremaine Edmunds is big enough to mix it with Kelce at the line of scrimmage, while Matt Milano can stay with him throughout a pass route.
The Bills need to jam Kelce wherever he lines up, he can’t be given a free release. Nor can he be left in a one-on-one matchup anywhere on the field.
Frazier, who should get a head-coaching job, can afford to keep extra bodies on Kelce. The skills of shutdown cornerback Tre’Davious White afford him that luxury. White can be trusted to shadow Hill. It’s one of the toughest assignments in football, but White’s a two-time Pro Bowler who will relish the challenge.
Don’t ignore the run
When the Chiefs won in Buffalo back in Week 6, they did it by running the ball. Andy Reid flipped the script by taking the ball away from Mahomes and putting it in the hands of rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
The Chiefs ran the ball 46 times, with Edwards-Helaire gaining 161 yards on 26 carries. Buffalo OC Brian Daboll should return the favour. He has the players at his disposal to bully a Kansas City defense not built to stop the run.
Daboll usually opts for a committee approach on the ground, but Devin Singletary and Zack Moss are still productive. They combined for 268 carries, 1,168 yards, and six rushing touchdowns during the regular season.
Allen added 421 yards and eight scores from 102 runs. He’s a threat whenever he escapes the pocket, and Daboll has been smart enough to maximise Allen’s dual-threat skills with some designed QB runs.
You learn this stuff playing for Andy Reid, and Mitch Morse took it to Buffalo. Pulls on the Josh Allen designed run, and takes Benardrick McKinney OUT. pic.twitter.com/x9C4iZUPbU
— Doug Farrar (@NFL_DougFarrar) July 22, 2020
The Chiefs won’t stand up to the Bills running game if Allen and Co. commit to keeping things on the ground. Spagnuolo’s defense is designed to let Frank Clark, Chris Jones, and Tyrann Mathieu feast on quarterbacks.
There isn’t a true run-stuffer anchoring the line, something the Browns exposed last week during the third quarter. The Bills should use some power early and often to wear down the defense and keep Kelce, Hill, and the rest waiting.
That takes care of Buffalo’s keys, here’s what the Chiefs need to do to book a return to the Super Bowl.
Confuse Allen with fire zones
Spagnuolo can trust his familiar blueprint provided the Bills don’t run the Chiefs out of their pressure looks. Spags has mastered the art of fire-zone pressures, showing the blitz from one place, but sending it from another.
It’s how his defense flummoxed Tom Brady and the 18-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl LXII. The New York Giants sent rushers from everywhere at Brady, and the Chiefs have to do the same to Allen, even though the approach produced mixed success in Week 6.
.@Chiefs came to Orchard Park, NY to face @BuffaloBills in wk 6 and unleashed a furious blitz attack on @JoshAllenQB . I expect #Spags to do the same on Sunday night. It will be a big part of who reps the #AFC in #SBLV #BillsMafia #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/dBrYGuohqn
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) January 19, 2021
Allen loves to make plays out of broken situations, but the more he’s forced to ad-lib, the more he’s likely to make a mistake or two. The Chiefs can mitigate the risk by playing man coverage behind their pressures and trusting some zone shells, particularly ones designed to take away Allen’s best weapon.
Double Stefon Diggs
Stefon Diggs has been dealing with an oblique injury, but like Mahomes, Diggs is a good bet to be on the field Sunday. Allen will want his biggest deep threat raring to go.
The Chiefs can’t let Diggs stretch the field vertically. He needs to see some form of double coverage on every play. Otherwise, Diggs will run riot and create room underneath for Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, and John Brown to exploit.
Spagnuolo can’t make the same mistake, especially since he doesn’t have the personnel on the outside to match up one-on-one. Keeping Diggs doubled and sending pressure from all angles are the only ways to stifle Allen, who has thrown for 530 yards and three touchdowns in two playoff wins.
Get RBs heavily involved in the passing game
The Bills will have to take away Mahomes’ vertical targets, so KC’s running backs should cause havoc as short-range pass-catchers. Reid might even have a healthy rotation to deploy for the first time in weeks.
Edwards-Helaire’s ankle injury prevented him from suiting up against the Browns, but the Chiefs’ top pick in the 2020 NFL draft has been practicing this week.
Patrick Mahomes, with a helmet, is practicing today.
Sammy Watkins (calf), Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle), Bashaud Breeland (protocol with a helmet) & Rashad Fenton (foot) are also practicing.
No Willie Gay (left ankle) & Le’Veon Bell (left knee).
— Nate Taylor (@ByNateTaylor) January 21, 2021
Having Edwards-Helaire available would be a huge boost after the way he trampled over the Bills in the regular season. He and Darrel Williams, whom Reid trusted against the Browns, can soften up the Buffalo defense again, both on the ground and through the air.
The Bills will have trouble covering running backs moved around the formation as receivers. Milano and Edmunds will be too focused on Kelce to track them in space.
Things will be even better if Le’Veon Bell, who should be motivated to win the Super Bowl his talent deserves, can play. He’s a mismatch against most coverage thanks to his speed and route-running skills.
This game is perfect for a forgotten veteran like Bell, or an unheralded backup like Williams, to emerge as an unlikely hero.