Divisional Round First Look : Chiefs Welcome Bills Back to Arrowhead

Kansas City Chiefs vs Buffalo Bills at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO on October 10, 2021

This weekend we see a rare double rematch – the teams met in week 5 of this year’s regular season, with Buffalo winning at Arrowhead 38-20, as well as in last year’s AFC Championship game (also at Arrowhead) where the Chiefs won 38-24.

Chiefs Focus @ChiefsFocus Charles Robinson @CRob5769

News & Notes

  • AFC 3 Seed Buffalo Bills visit AFC 2 Seed Kansas City Chiefs 
  • Bills enter having decimated division rival New England in the Wild Card round 47-17
  • Kansas City comes off of a 42-21 win at Arrowhead Stadium against the 7 seeded Pittsburgh Steelers 
  • The Chiefs will look to improve their home playoff record to 7-1 in the Patrick Mahomes era in a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game. Kansas City won that game 38-24, and this year’s contest will be played nearly a year to the day of last year’s (January 24, 2021 AFCCG; January 23, 2022 AFCD) 

There are some teams and players that, through the course of competitive evolution, you just grow to dislike. The Chiefs and Bills have certainly reached this point. The two teams began their respective ascents at around the same time, with the Chiefs taking Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick in the 2017 draft and a year later the Bills selecting Josh Allen with the 7th pick in the 2018 draft. The rosters have been built in different ways to showcase different strengths, but the beginning of their climb to their current states started with the independent but similar decisions to christen new faces of the franchise. And both decisions have paid off, to different degrees. Last season, Allen led the Bills to their first playoff win since 1995 when the team defeated Dan Marino and the Dolphins in the Wild Card round. Buffalo rattled off wins against Phillip Rivers and the Colts in the Wild Card round in 2021 and Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in the divisional round before their eventual loss to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. 

Mahomes has obviously led the Chiefs the heights that no one could have expected when they drafted the “project” quarterback out of Texas Tech in 2017. Mahomes victory over Andrew Luck and the Colts in the 2019 divisional round was the first home playoff win at Arrowhead Stadium since Joe Montana outdueled Neil O’Donnell and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1993. He didn’t stop there, though. After falling short in 2019, the Chiefs won the Super Bowl in 2020 and went back in 2021 to fall short of the Lombardi. But they are back in familiar territory in 2022 against a familiar foe, with a AFC Championship and a definition of each young star’s trajectory on the line.  

When you talk about the best quarterbacks in the league, particularly young ones, these two comes to the forefront of every conversation. Allen is a full-fledged specimen at the position. He’s 6’5”, 237 with a rocket arm and legs that can hurt you just as bad. This season, Allen became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 750. Last year, he became the first quarterback in league history with at least 30 passing touchdowns and 8 rushing touchdowns. He’s also the first player in league history to reach 100 passing touchdowns and 30 rushing touchdowns in his first 4 seasons. His 135 total TD in 4 years trails only Dan Marino (144) for the most in NFL history in that span. The Bills have won the AFC East in back-to-back years for the first time since the span between 1988-1991 when they dominated the division and went to 4 straight Super Bowls. Patrick Mahomes is no slouch, in comparison. The columns in the record books that he has toppled are plentiful, and if you’re having a slow day at work you can find where I’ve covered them here and here. And while Allen has the individual stats and relative team success to hang his hat on, the organizational transformation that Mahomes has brought to Kansas City is unparalleled by anyone who is not currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame or named Tom Brady. Since Mahomes took the helm in 2018, the Chiefs have been to the AFC Championship game every season, losing in 2019 before winning in 2020 and 2021. They have been to back-to-back Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl 54 – in which Mahomes earned the game’s most valuable player honor. 

While the heart of the debate for both fanbases stems almost directly to the quarterback comparison in most cases, the completeness of the teams and the individuals who have built them have turned this into this generation’s version of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning’s Patriots/Colts rivalries. Two teams who share a conference but from separate divisions who have bigger goals than division championships and playoff appearances in their minds coming into every season. Buffalo has been a darkhorse pick in the AFC that has emerged this season as a full-fledged contender, and Kansas City is the former upstart who have now found themselves as the team with the biggest target on their backs in the NFL, let alone the AFC. Not many would argue that these two are the class of the AFC, so a divisional round matchup seems premature, but it will be star studded, nonetheless. 

There is no lack of depth on either roster. Names like Tyreek Hill, Stephon Diggs, Travis Kelce, Dawson Knox, Chris Jones, Jerry Hughes, Tremaine Edmunds, Micah Hyde, and Tyrann Mathieu will all suit up to join their all-world quarterbacks in battle on Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium. Two teams with rosters that are constructed as well as any in the NFL, coached as well as any in the NFL, and players that don’t particularly like each other a whole lot.  So how far has each team come since their week 5 showdown in Arrowhead in October? Let’s start with the Bills. 

Buffalo started out on fire this season. After losing the first game of the year to Pittsburgh at home, they rattled off 4 wins in a row capped by the 38-20 whitewashing of Kansas City in Arrowhead Stadium. They looked like they were the best team in the AFC and the NFL at 4-1, and many national media outlets took notice and were boisterous about declaring them as such while simultaneously touting the fall of the Chiefs empire. However, a different narrative developed over the next 8 weeks of the Bills season. After losing a close game to the Tennessee Titans the week after their win against the Chiefs, Buffalo got back on track with a win against the (then) lowly Miami Dolphins. After that? A mindblowing 9-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Over the next 6 games, Buffalo would lose 4 including a blowout loss to the Colts and a loss to division rival New England at home. Halfway through December the Bills were 7-6 and on the outside looking in at a division championship. Wins in their next four games against Carolina, New England, Atlanta, and the Jets propelled them as New England sank back, losing key games down the stretch, and giving Buffalo their second consecutive AFC East title. Then, last Saturday, the Bills appeared to get the strong urge to reintroduce themselves to the world in their Wild Card win over the Patriots. The Bills scored touchdowns on all 7 of their drives against New England, while holding the Patriots to 305 yards of offense and shutting down their vaunted rushing attack. Allen threw for 308 yards and 5 TD. 

As for the Chiefs, they rebounded nicely with a convincing win over the Football Team in Washington in week 6, before hitting 2021 rock bottom with a humiliating 27-3 week 7 loss to the Tennessee Titans. What happened next defined the Chiefs season, and set the stage for a matchup when the week 5 score has to be thrown out the window. KC has won 10 of their last 11 games since the loss to Tennessee behind a defense that has moved from dead last in the NFL to points allowed per game to 8th, and an offense that couldn’t find the answers anywhere in the first 7 weeks finding themselves as the league’s 3rd most prolific unit by the end of 2021. Which they will need going up against a Buffalo defense that has been the league’s best in both points allowed and yards allowed over the course of the 2021 season. 

So we know both team’s trajectories heading into the Divisional matchup that has game of the week written all over it, but what has each gained and lost since the last time they played? Well, Buffalo has stayed healthy for the most part. They did lose reserve offensive lineman Ike Boettger to an Achilles injury against New England last Saturday, but kept everyone else off of the IR. Their biggest loss of the season, and one that will most definitely impact their approach against the Chiefs compared to the last time the two teams squared off, is that of cornerback Tre’Davious White. White was lost on Thanksgiving night against New Orleans with a torn ACL, and the Bills defense hasn’t looked quite the same since. While they slipped minimally against the pass, it was against quarterbacks like Cam Newtown, Matt Ryan, Mac Jones, and Zac Wilson. The only quality QB they played in that timeframe was Tom Brady, a game they lost while allowing Brady 363 passing yards and 2 TD. Leonard Fournette also had 113 yard rushing in that game, an area where the Bills have slipped noticeably since White went out. in the four games following his exit, Buffalo allowed 135 yards per game on the ground – 39 more than they had prior to his injury. 

Buffalo did hold New England to 89 yards rushing in their wild card matchup after allowing 371 combined in their 2 regular season matchups, but with the way the Buffalo offense jumped out on New England running the ball was not an option late in the game. White is also a huge presence in Buffalo’s strategy of taking Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill out of the gameplan for KC. Without him, it is going to be difficult to body those two, along with the other Chiefs receiving threats that have emerged in recent weeks. 

In Kansas City, a lot has changed. The first time these two teams played, Daniel Sorensen played every defensive snap at free safety and gave up 2 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. Chris Jones missed the game with a wrist injury. Charvarius Ward was inactive. Frank Clark started and played well, but it was his first game back from a hamstring injury. It was Willie Gay’s first game off the IR. Jarran Reed only played 27 snaps. All 4 of these defenders, plus Melvin Ingram who was added at the trade deadline and a catalyst for the Chiefs now vaunted pass rush late in the season, will be healthy and active against Buffalo on Sunday. Sorensen has been (for the most part) shifted into a most situational role that fits his abilities much, much better by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith had just 4 NFL starts under their belt when they took the field in October, and Joe Thuney and Orlando Brown had 4 with the Chiefs. That is a unit that has gone from a question mark to the most dominant in the league. Make no mistake about it – the Chiefs invested a lot of resources (both cash and draft capital) into their offensive line after the result of Super Bowl 55, and it has paid off for them immensely. A defensive front 7 featuring Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Jarran Reed, Melvin Ingram, Nick Bolton, Willie Gay, and Anthony Hitchens is much more daunting for the Bills offensive line than Frank Clark, Derrick Nnadi, Tershawn Wharton, Mike Danna, Ben Niemann, Anthony Hitchens, and Nick Bolton. While the latter provide depth and will contribute, there is a distinct difference in what the Chiefs will sport up front against the Bills on Sunday compared to what was trotted out in early October. 

While the same two clubs with take the field against each other on Sunday that shared the same field in October, the players who will be clashing will be much different. Both quarterbacks are susceptible to questionable play when pressured. We’ve seen it with Mahomes early in the year, and Allen has been consistently erratic when he is contained and knocked down. Against New England, Allen had time to throw the ball. I do not see that happening against this version of the KC defensive front. When the two best teams in the AFC (and possibly the NFL) take the field on Sunday, they will both be ready to bring everything they have up their respective sleeves to end the other’s season. They key to this, which we will dive into deeper later in the week, will be who wins the battle up front on both sides of the ball. The quarterbacks will be the story, but the play in the trenches will be the reason that one of these two teams move on to the AFC Championship.  

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