The Buffalo Bills laid down the gauntlet to the rest of the NFL with a 47-17 dismantling of the New England Patriots last weekend. In their AFC Wild Card win, the Bills were the first team in league history to score a touchdown on every offensive possession without a turnover, field goal, or punt. Josh Allen sent a message to the Kansas City Chiefs that he means business, posting up 308 passing yards and five touchdowns while earning the respect of a certain Hall of Famer commanding the other sideline.
"What you did out there was awesome," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick reportedly told Allen after the game. "We didn't have an answer."
But someone else sure did: Patrick Mahomes. Sunday night, the Chiefs tore apart the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense 42-21 on the heels of their former MVP quarterback's 404 passing yards and five touchdowns. The 138.2 QB rating was his second-highest mark of the season, peaking at the right time after an ugly 2021 start where he threw 10 interceptions in the first eight games of the year.
Two of those picks came against Buffalo in October, part of a 38-20 Week 5 Bills victory in Arrowhead Stadium that appeared to cement them as the new AFC powerhouse. Instead, it was the second-seeded Chiefs who hit their stride in the season's second half, winning nine of their final 10 games to seize control of the AFC West and leave Buffalo sitting at No. 3.
Can the Bills, led by Allen and their surging offense, rediscover that October magic on the road? Or will the Chiefs build off their 38-24 victory in last season's AFC Championship Game, reminding Buffalo and everyone else the road to the Super Bowl still runs through them?
AFC Divisional Playoff: Buffalo (12-6) at Kansas City (13-5)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Josh Allen vs. Patrick Mahomes
It's the matchup everyone is talking about in a game that's expected to be an offensive shootout. Allen had the edge in their last meeting, averaging a whopping 12.1 yards per attempt, for a total of 315 passing yards and three touchdowns in that October victory. More importantly, he took care of the football, never getting sacked or committing a turnover while racking up a team-high 59 rushing yards, along with another score.
It's that all-purpose element of Allen's game that will keep the Chiefs' defense on its heels. He nearly doubled Mahomes' rushing yards this season (763 to 381) while averaging a whopping 6.3 yards per carry.
"[Allen]'s big, he's strong, he's got a stiff arm," Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said this week. "If you don't get him down with a couple of guys, he's already shown he can break tackles, he extends downs."
"They put a lot on his shoulders," Mahomes said of Allen. "And he rises to the occasion. He's able to run the ball, he can throw the ball, he has the arm strength to throw it anywhere on the football field and he makes great decisions."
Of course, that's the same praise people heap upon Mahomes, who has cut down the turnovers and turned his season around during what for him was a difficult year.
"What I learned is I have to be patient," he said about those struggles earlier this fall. "I wanted to be this high-flying quarterback, throwing all these long touchdowns like I've done in the early part of my career. Defenses weren't letting me do that, and I learned to be patient. Just take what's there and try to find success in other ways."
With 325 passing yards, three TD passes, and another one on the ground against Buffalo last January, Mahomes has already proven he can beat this team when it matters most. He also enters the weekend red hot after becoming the third player in NFL history to throw a touchdown pass to a running back, tight end, wide receiver, and offensive lineman in the same game.
Guess who was the second? Allen, who did it literally 24 hours before him against New England. So, strap in, get your popcorn ready, and enjoy this heavyweight fight between the AFC's best QB rivalry since Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
"These are two of the best guys in the league," said Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark this week. "You say the two best young quarterbacks in the league today, I'd say 99 percent of the people in the world are going to say Pat Mahomes and Josh Allen."
2. Dawson Knox vs. Travis Kelce
There's a whole lot of other interesting matchups here that have developed since October. The Bills' run game has come to life with Devin Singletary, who busted through for 81 yards and two touchdowns against the Patriots last Saturday. The Chiefs' lead rusher in the Wild Card Round romp against the Steelers, Jerick McKinnon, ran for one fewer yard (61) than he did with the team during the entire regular season.
But the punch-for-punch positional battle worth watching comes at tight end. Kelce is the unquestioned All-Pro in the AFC, knifing the Steelers with 108 yards, including a 48-yard score. Kelce also threw a two-yard TD pass (to wide receiver Byron Pringle) while becoming the first NFL player in playoff history to rack up a touchdown pass, catch, and more than 100 receiving yards.
This Sunday, he goes up against Knox, who threw a knockout punch in the October game with a 53-yard touchdown catch. Knox also had five catches of his own in his Wild Card game, piling up 89 yards and two scores.
So, who's better? Knox and Kelce caught the same number of touchdowns during the regular season (nine) with a similar yards per catch average (12.0 to 12.2). It's Kelce, though that remains a bigger focal point in the offense, nearly doubling Dawson in receptions (92 vs. 49) in the regular season and likewise, yards (1,125 to 587).
Both of them enter this game red hot. Expect multiple TDs and a game-changing play from each.
3. Which defense can force a mistake?
Defenses, of course, will take a back seat in a game featuring these powerhouse offensive players. But both the Bills and Chiefs feast off forcing turnovers that lead to momentum swings. Each were in the top five in the NFL in that category during the regular season, the Bills ranking third with 30 takeaways while the Chiefs were right behind them with 29 (tied for fifth).
Can the Bills in particular pressure Mahomes to make a mistake? Their 19 interceptions tied them for third before tacking on two more in the Wild Card Round against rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Micah Hyde, who had a pick-six against Mahomes in October, got Jones last Saturday and enters this game confident he and fellow safety Jordan Poyer can repeat this fall's impressive performance.
"They're two Pro Bowl-caliber players," Mahomes said on Wednesday. "It's hard to get two safeties like that on the same team — and they play well off of each other. They know how to kind of rock the two-high shells to go to one-high. They both can play up top or down low, so it's a tremendous challenge to try to get a read for what they're doing."
The Chiefs feel they can get around that through check-downs to running backs like McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, forcing the Bills to spread the field. On Kansas City's end, the hope is the defensive front puts the pressure on Allen. The Chiefs sacked him four times in their AFC Championship Game victory last season, adding an interception of their own.
Speaking of Edwards-Helaire, he has practiced in full this week, so it looks like he'll be good to suit up for the Chiefs after missing the past three games with a shoulder injury. Williams, his backfield mate, appears a bigger question mark after suffering a toe injury in Week 18. He played last week against the Steelers but has been held out of practice this week. Cornerback Rashad Fenton may also sit with a back injury.
The Bills, meanwhile, have just one person on the injury report: defensive end Mario Addison, and he's expected to play. The better news is that neither team currently has any issues with COVID-19.
The Chiefs have their loyal fan base powering Arrowhead Stadium, one of the best home-field advantages in all of sports. Expect the noise to drown out offensive play calls for the Buffalo offense and make life difficult for Allen.
But at the end of the day, Allen carved up one of the league's toughest defenses (New England) without making a mistake. Mahomes had one slip-up in last Sunday's rout of Pittsburgh, throwing an interception early before briefly falling behind 7-0 after a botched handoff to Williams led to a fumble recovery by T.J. Watt.
It'll only take one mistake like that to swing a game in which both teams might score every time down the field (did someone say bet the over?) Arguably the best game of this Divisional Round should end with the Bills vanquishing their Goliath in their quest for their first Super Bowl appearance since 1994.
Prediction: Bills 41, Chiefs 38
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.