For the first time in his young career, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes will start against the Buffalo Bills (4-1). It’s the last AFC contender that Mahomes has not yet played; he already has three or more starts against teams like the New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens.
Generally, it has been an advantage for the Chiefs to face an opponent who is defending Mahomes for the first time; they’ve only lost twice in Mahomes’ first appearance against a particular opponent. In 2018, the Chiefs lost 43-40 to the Patriots despite Mahomes’ 352 passing yards and four touchdowns — and in 2019, Kansas City fell to the Titans 35-32 even though Mahomes totaled 446 passing yards and three scores.
So even when the Chiefs do lose in Mahomes’ initial matchup with a team, he’s still able to produce. On the practice field, there’s only so much you can do to prepare for Mahomes; the real deal can prove to be a lot more difficult.
There’s a lot more to this Monday afternoon game. Here are five things to watch:
1. Josh Allen throwing deep
Mahomes may have the most explosive, live arm among NFL quarterbacks — but it’s okay to admit that Bills quarterback Josh Allen is a close second. In years past, the cannon attached to his right shoulder hasn’t translated to effective deep passing — but in 2020, it’s a different story.
Allen has attempted 19 passes of over 20 yards in the air. He’s completed 12 of those throws for 376 yards and three touchdowns, which has been good for a passer rating is 124.6 — seventh-best this season. In comparison, Mahomes has attempted 24 deep throws, completing six with a passer rating of 85.6.
Part of Allen’s increased deep ball efficiency is his individual development — but the offseason trade for wide receiver Stefon Diggs is a big factor, too. Diggs is a threat to burn any cornerback he faces; he’s great at hauling in contested catches. This year, Diggs has caught all four of the Allen’s deep attempts to him for 139 yards. There’s also former Pittsburg State Gorilla wide receiver John Brown, who has caught two deep throws for 66 yards and a touchdown.
The Chiefs secondary should be more prepared for deep throws than they were against Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in Week 5, but Allen’s arm allows him to stretch the field even deeper than Carr could.
2. How the offensive line holds up
When the Chiefs offensive line is fully healthy, it’s a reliable, veteran group that works well together — and has been effective. Unfortunately, they won’t be at full strength for an extended period of time.
Left guard Kelechi Osemele has now been officially placed on injured reserve after tearing tendons in both knees in the loss to the Raiders. Osemele had been a dominant run blocker this year, as evidenced by the team’s success when rushing to the left. In addition, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz popped up on the injury report with back pain — and is officially questionable for Week 6.
These injuries won’t help Mahomes’ comfort level; against the Raiders, he looked skittish and eager to take off while under any sign of pressure. The Bills will have a more-established group of pass rushers to throw at the Chiefs: edge rusher Jerry Hughes is 13th in the NFL with 18 pressures this year, edge defender Mario Addison has 14 and last year’s ninth-overall draft selection — defensive tackle Ed Oliver — has 10 quarterback pressures.
But according to Pro Football Reference, Buffalo has earned pressure on opposing quarterbacks at the fourth-lowest rate of dropbacks this season — while blitzing at the third-highest rate. We’ve seen what Mahomes can do against the blitz.
3. Taking advantage of turnover opportunities
When the opportunities have presented themselves, the Chiefs secondary has shown some ball-hawking ability. In the last two games, safety Juan Thornhill, safety Tyrann Mathieu, cornerback Rashad Fenton and cornerback Bashaud Breeland have all brought in a pick.
They might be getting more opportunities against the Bills. Allen has thrown three interceptions in the past three weeks — and the team’s eight total turnovers ranks as the league’s eighth-most.
On Tuesday, the Tennessee Titans intercepted Allen twice, immediately turning both of them into touchdowns. That helped them seal a dominant 42-16 win. In Week 3, an Allen interception aided the Los Angeles Rams in a 25-point comeback they couldn’t quite complete, ultimately losing to the Bills 35-32.
If the Chiefs take advantage of opportunities to create turnovers, it should help them attain a comfortable scoring cushion.
4. Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle stepping up
The hamstring injury to wide receiver Sammy Watkins is very unfortunate. He has been the team’s third-most productive receiver, nabbing two touchdowns so far. In his absence, the team sounds like their faith is in the young wide receivers Hardman and Pringle.
During his Thursday press conference, Mahomes talked about the impact of Watkins’ injury, but only mentioned Hardman and Pringle as players who need to step up. He might not have felt the need to mention wide receiver Demarcus Robinson’s name because he is usually on the field anyway — but it also might indicate that Pringle will get a chance to prove himself over Robinson.
His only catch of the season came last week on third down with four yards to go.
Don't tell @ChiefInCarolina, but Byron Pringle flashed on his one reception. Explosion out of the stem, hip fluidity on the break. There are guys getting snaps over him that can't do it like this. Snap count and targets tell a story and there are reasons we don't see him. pic.twitter.com/WXrP4NBhEe— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) October 13, 2020
Hardman stepped up when wide receiver Tyreek Hill went down last year; in the four full games Hill missed, Hardman caught 12 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns. It’s still the most productive stretch of Hardman’s career. We’ll see if he can have similar numbers with Watkins out in Week 6.
5. The leveled-up Andy Reid game plan
Chiefs head coach (and offensive play-caller) Andy Reid doesn’t like deploying his best, most creative plays and formations in any given week. If he believes his team can beat an opponent with a vanilla game plan, he will trust them to do so.
He will, however, pull out a more detailed, specific game plan to attack a particular defense’s weaknesses and tendencies when he has to; look no further than the Week 3 win over the Baltimore Ravens. In that game, Reid had special plays for certain looks that worked to perfection — and from how aggressive he was, it was obvious that he was looking to put up a lot of points.
He did that because he knew how important that game would be for AFC playoff seeding. The 4-1 Bills look to be just as big a threat to get that top seed, so it’s fair to expect that Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy will pull out all the stops to get a victory.
Besides that, Reid has a track record of putting it to his former coaching assistants. Bills head coach Sean McDermott is another branch on the Reid coaching tree — and come Monday afternoon, that may not be a good thing for him.