The Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills both lead their divisions five games into the 2020 NFL season despite suffering their first losses last week. Their early strength makes this Monday night meeting, moved due to COVID-19 issues with other teams, an important early-season matchup when it comes to playoff positioning. (FOX/NFL Network will cover this game, which was originally set for the "Thursday Night Football" slot for Week 6).
It's also a chance for one to rebound as these powerhouses have spent the past few days licking their wounds. The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs remain one of the most entertaining, aggressive offenses in NFL history with MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes under center. However, the Chiefs' loss to the Las Vegas Raiders last week exposed a weakness: their defense. Allowing 40 points was too much to overcome as the Raiders snapped a 13-game winless streak against their division rival.
The Bills also self-destructed on defense Tuesday night, allowing a whopping 42 points to a Tennessee Titans team that stumbled into the game with multiple players on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. The outbreak could have crippled the AFC South division leaders but instead, it was the Bills who looked off-kilter much of the night. The absence of two starters, wide receiver John Brown and cornerback Tre'Davious White, proved difficult to replace on both sides of the ball.
At least the Bills won't have to defend the Chiefs' newest signing: two-time All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell. Keep in mind Bell, released from the New York Jets earlier this week, won't even be able to practice with Kansas City until Week 7 (provided he passes his COVID-19 testing).
So can the Bills pull themselves together and pull off the upset? Or will the Chiefs bounce back in a big way on Monday?
Kansas City at Buffalo
Kickoff: Monday, Oct. 19 at 5 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Chiefs -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which defense will bounce back quicker after their rough week?
No one will argue the offensive strength of the Chiefs. The Bills' strong start alongside them, based largely on the play of quarterback Josh Allen, has been one of 2020's big surprises.
So the game-changer Monday isn't whether these teams can score. It's which defense will be able to step up and stop them just enough times to make a difference.
The Chiefs rank just 20th in the NFL, allowing 382.8 total yards per game, after their worst defensive performance of the year against the Raiders. They made David Carr look like a Pro Bowl quarterback once again, allowing 72- and 59-yard touchdown passes as they gave up 490 yards of total offense.
"We just didn't finish the right way," Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu told the AP. "In the run game, even in the pass game, we didn't finish how we normally would."
But if the Chiefs' defense was bad... the Bills were downright awful. They allowed the Titans to go 6-for-6 in the red zone, failed to sack Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill and allowed touchdowns on 3-of-4 Tennessee possessions in the second half. It's not what you expect from the NFL's third-ranked defense last season, one that only allowed just 16.2 points per game. Only the Patriots (14.1) were better at suppressing offensive output.
The Bills received good news Friday when their top cornerback, Tre'Davious White, practiced in full. He should be cleared to play and will be matched up against Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
But the key to beating the Chiefs could be the Bills' defensive line. Patrick Mahomes was sacked a season-high three times against the Raiders and the team lost offensive lineman Keleche Osemele for the season. Keep in mind they're already down Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, their starting guard, who opted out this year to help care for COVID-19 patients in his native Canada.
Mahomes can evade pressure but he's also human. No time to throw means limited opportunities for Hill to get deep; the Chiefs will also be down one less target with Sammy Watkins out with a hamstring injury. There's an opening for the defense to make an impact.
2. Can Josh Allen hold a candle to Patrick Mahomes?
As with any game featuring an upstart underdog, the pressure will be on Allen to perform against one of the league's offensive stars. The first four games of 2020 had served to put the Bills quarterback on another level: 12 touchdowns, just one interception, and no single-game quarterback rating below 104.6.
In fact, Allen enters this game outranking Mahomes in passing yards (1,589 to 1,474) and touchdown passes (14 to 13). They rank 1-2 in the AFC in both categories.
But against the Titans, Allen made uncharacteristic mistakes. It was his first game throwing multiple interceptions since Sept. 29, 2019 against the Patriots; a pick deep in Tennessee territory killed off momentum early in the second half. Without deep threat John Brown stretching the field, he averaged just 6.4 yards per pass attempt.
Allen gets Brown back for Sunday and will look to continue his strong chemistry with Stefon Diggs (a season-high 10 catches against the Titans). It's clear this upset will be on the strength of his arm as the Bills haven't had a 100-yard rusher all season.
3. Will the Chiefs' run game succeed through without their newest acquisition on the field?
For the Chiefs, their offense needs to give Mahomes more time to throw. However, their signing of Bell this week signifies how little they trust the rushing attack. After rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire had a sizzling debut, exploding for 138 rushing yards in Week 1 against the Houston Texans, he's cooled off considerably. Edwards has failed to score on the ground in the past four weeks and averaged just 51.5 yards per game. Compare that to Mahomes, who's had 129 yards on the ground during the same stretch as the quarterback while averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
The Bills are 12th against the run this season, allowing 103.1 yards per game and were 10th the year before, their weakness defensively. Helaire needs a return to form and head coach Andy Reid has to commit to the run after a season-low 20 rushing plays against the Raiders.
These teams both have aspirations to go deep in the AFC playoffs; expect this one to be a slugfest with multiple lead changes. But the x-factor should come in the experience of the Chiefs' offense along with their ability to force turnovers on defense. A plus-five turnover margin from the Chiefs is tied for fourth in the NFL; their three giveaways are third-fewest.
Compare that to the Bills, whose minus-two turnover margin has them 20th in the NFL and includes eight giveaways. Super Bowl-winning franchises don't sit that far down the list. As good as Buffalo seems they can be, Monday night may offer a few more lessons on how they can get there.
Prediction: Chiefs 34, Bills 28
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.