Buffalo Bills vs Kansas City Chiefs: Six key factors

Chiefs beat Browns
Previewing the Chiefs and Bills' Sunday matchup. Photo from The Guardian.

Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills face a daunting task knocking off the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs whether or not Patrick Mahomes plays in this Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

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.

More important than his years, Henne will have a cadre of awesome playmakers to throw to. The Bills need a plan to keep Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce quiet, no matter who plays quarterback.

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:

Ex-pro QB Chris Simms also told Sky Sports recent history favours Mahomes taking the field:


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.

Veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison can collapse the edges while Ed Oliver and Jordan Phillips clog the middle. The Bills weren’t afraid to blitz Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens last week.

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.

Henne would offer a more static target for the double A-gap blitzes McDermott learned from Jim Johnson and perfected under Ron Rivera in Carolina.

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.

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.

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.

Diggs carved up the Ravens last week, catching eight balls for 106 yards. The Ravens thought they could get away with man-coverage matchups featuring Marlon Humphrey or Marcus Peters.

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.

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.

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