The last time the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs met in the AFC Championship Game, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen weren't even born. Instead, Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Joe Montana were the starting quarterbacks as the Bills bested the Chiefs 30-13 on Jan. 23, 1994. Advancing easily, the AFC's pre-Patriots dynasty moved on to their fourth straight Super Bowl appearance — and loss.
Who would have believed back then the Bills were about to drop off the face of the NFL planet for a generation?
Indeed, it marked the end of an era for both teams; Montana's final game and the last gasp of a Bills regime charred by the losses that mattered most. It's the cross Allen and the 2021 version of this team has to bear, that 0-4 Super Bowl record as they seek the team's first-ever NFL championship. After a long run of futility, including an 18-year playoff drought and six straight last-place finishes in the AFC East, they're on the precipice of rising again.
To do it, the Bills face a daunting task: defeating top seed and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City on the road. The Chiefs breezed through the regular season with a 14-2 record and boast the league's top-rated offense and a perennial NFL MVP quarterback in Mahomes. On paper, they haven't slowed down since February and remain every bit the favorite to earn back-to-back NFL titles for the first time in team history.
But the Chiefs have also shown some cracks in the armor in recent weeks. Mahomes left last week's game with a concussion but he announced on Friday that he's been cleared from protocol and will play on Sunday night. Their last two games playing the starters have been shaky, even at home: a 17-14 squeaker against the NFC-worst Atlanta Falcons, then a 22-17 nail-biter against the Cleveland Browns in last week's AFC Divisional Round. A very Browns-ian fumble out of the end zone and a gutsy fourth-quarter run, then fourth-down pass by backup quarterback Chad Henne were all that stood in the way of an upset. In their last nine games, they have just an 8-1 record despite only having a +15 point differential.
Can the Chiefs rediscover their mojo in time to snap the Bills' eight-game win streak? Or will Buffalo springboard past their rival again, 27 years later, to earn another shot at Super Bowl glory?
AFC Championship: Buffalo at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 24 at 6:40 p.m. ET
Spread: Kansas City -3
Three Things to Watch
1. How effective will Patrick Mahomes be on Sunday?
Every member of Arrowhead Pride has held their breath since the 2018 NFL MVP was ruled out of the Browns game and entered the NFL's concussion protocol. Early signs were that he's recovering fine; Mahomes was a limited participant in Thursday's practice and was cleared to play as of Friday afternoon. He's also dealing with a toe injury that occurred prior to the concussion but on Friday Mahomes said that it was feeling "a lot better."
When questioned by the media, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy gave a short, reassuring take: "Pat looks like Pat."
That's a strong (albeit biased) vote of confidence. Mahomes did have one of his best games of the year against the Bills during a 26-17 win in October, completing a season-high 80.8 percent of his passes while throwing two touchdowns to All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce. Mahomes' guaranteed presence is enough to move the needle at least a full point.
But a hampered Mahomes could prove problematic. And if Chad Henne is pushed into action? That turns this top-seeded team into an underdog. Yes, the 35-year-old journeyman had a late drive to remember, doing just enough to get the Chiefs over their shock and into the AFC Championship Game. But NFL memories can hinge on lucky breaks; an ugly interception on the previous drive gave the Browns a chance to win outright.
Henne has thrown for more interceptions (63) than touchdowns (60) in a career that didn't include any playoff experience until last week. Facing a red-hot Bills defense that torched reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson with a 101-yard pick-six seems a wee bit more difficult to maneuver past than the Browns. There will be a greater reliance on the run game Sunday (more on that shortly) but the dip in performance here is stark. Kelce along with wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins (questionable to play himself/calf) can't throw the ball to themselves, right?
The Chiefs need Mahomes to play a full 60 minutes.
2. Josh Allen vs. Chiefs defense
On the other side of the ball, perhaps no one (not even Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers) enters this weekend hotter than Josh Allen. Only Tom Brady has thrown for more yards than Allen's 530 thus far in the postseason; he's added another 57 on the ground. But perhaps the biggest stat is zero turnovers against two of the AFC's best takeaway defenses in the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts.
Can Allen keep those good vibes going? On paper, the Chiefs' defense appears to be their weak point, but they were more than up to the task in October. That 26-17 defeat was arguably the worst game of Allen's year to date, throwing for a season-low 122 yards and completing just 51.9 percent of his passes. To be fair, a weird schedule that included just five days of rest left the Bills off-balance. But it's a loss Allen won't soon forget as the Bills have an opportunity to even the score.
"They showed a couple of different things on defense, stuff we weren't expecting," Allen explained this week. "[It came down to] just not being as accurate with the ball as I should have been.
"I think we've gotten a lot better since that game — they'd probably say the same thing. So it's good teams that are going to go out and compete, and it's going to be a four-quarter dogfight."
Allen needs continued, top-tier production from All-Pro wideout Stefon Diggs to lead the way. Diggs has an NFL-best 14 catches, 234 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the postseason; he's been virtually uncoverable even with other pass catchers lagging (both Cole Beasley and John Brown were held without a catch in at least one playoff game). Against the Chiefs the first time, Diggs was held in check for only 46 receiving yards. That'll be enough to make the difference Sunday for a Bills team that still is struggling to diversify.
3. Both rushing attacks
Ball control on the ground is the x-factor in a game where so much of the primary focus revolves around the two quarterbacks. Back in October, the Chiefs posted 245 rushing yards, the most in any game since Mahomes took over as the starter in 2017. It was also the most rushing plays (46) put forth by an Andy Reid-led team since he took over as the Chiefs head coach back in 2013.
What do you think this team will try and do with Mahomes likely less than 100 percent?
In the first meeting against the Bills, Kansas City leaned heavily on rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who gashed Buffalo for 161 rushing yards as the Chiefs won the time of possession battle by more than 15 minutes. The first-round pick hasn't played since suffering an ankle injury in Week 15 and was still limited in practice as of Thursday, so he's just as big a name to watch as Mahomes.
The Bills, on the other side, need to give Allen some cover with some semblance of a run game. Against the Ravens, they earned just a single first down out of 17 on the ground and wound up with just 32 rushing yards overall. When your quarterback has nearly outrushed the entire team, you know you're in trouble.
Zack Moss is hurt and out for the rest of the playoffs, so Devin Singletary is the lone Bills back with experience. He's got to find a way to stay involved after posting just 46 yards on 10 carries thus far.
"If they play man [defense]," Allen added, "We have to win our matchups outside, get our run game established, and play really good complementary football."
The Chiefs' home-field advantage is one of the strongest in the NFL and the crowd will be large (17,000) despite COVID-19 restrictions. The problem is, we don't know what to expect from Patrick Mahomes after suffering the concussion last week (or if his injured toe will be an issue) and Kansas City will face a Bills team that's played clean on offense, posted big plays on defense, and learned how to manage a game from start to finish.
This one will be close. But even if Mahomes returns at near full strength, the Bills appear to have a special mojo this year as they look to put a 27-year Super Bowl drought behind them.
Prediction: Bills 27, Chiefs 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.