The Run It Back tour will make its final appearance at Arrowhead Stadium for the 2020 season this Sunday, no matter the result. The Kansas City Chiefs (15-2) and the Buffalo Bills (15-3) are the final two AFC teams left. The Chiefs are looking to repeat as conference champions, while Buffalo is looking for its first AFC title since the 1993 season.
While they hope to repeat, Kansas City is also hoping the history of playing the Bills in the postseason doesn’t repeat itself. The Bills’ last appearance in the Super Bowl was made possible by a 30-13 victory over the Chiefs in the 1994 AFC Championship. Buffalo also took out the Chiefs in the 1992 divisional round.
However, the Chiefs’ appearance in the first-ever Super Bowl came after a 31-7 beating of the Buffalo Bills in the 1967 AFL Championship.
So, the all-time record in conference championship games between these two franchises is 1-1. They’re clearly the two best teams in the AFC this year, and this game should turn into a memorable, back-and-forth shootout between two great offenses.
I have five things to watch in Kansas City’s third-consecutive AFC Championship:
1. Patrick Mahomes
It’s not often I have to explain why we need to watch Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes — but this game is unique.
Mahomes was cleared on Friday from the concussion protocol, meaning he will start Sunday. He sounded confident in his media availability on Friday; he mentioned that he was working through the big toe injury he suffered against the Browns — saying it was sore following the game.
Both of the things he went through could absolutely affect the way he plays. The toe could affect his mobility — and what if he’s more hesitant when there’s possible contact because of the hit he suffered last week?
There are two reasons to believe he’ll be fine:
- The Chiefs should be able to trust their traditional run game against an average Buffalo front seven — especially if they have a similar game plan to Week 6.
- Buffalo also has a forgettable pass-rushing unit. The rest of their defense has big names, but their biggest threat on the line is 33-year old edge rusher Jerry Huges.
Even if the Bills’ defense can find success against the Chiefs’ offense, it wouldn’t be happening in the fashion of Mahomes being pummeled each time he dropped back.
2. Covering Buffalo’s dynamic receiving corps
The last time these two teams met, the Chiefs’ secondary had an outstanding day defending the deep passing game.
Bills quarterback Josh Allen was 0 for 4 on passes thrown 20 or more yards in the air — including the game-sealing interception by safety Daniel Sorensen. Two of those targets were deep throws into the end zone to wide receiver Stefon Diggs: one of them was knocked away in impressive fashion by safety Juan Thornhill, while the other was a hard catch to make over Thornhill — and ultimately was dropped.
In total, the Chiefs held the talented wide receiver trio of Diggs, Cole Beasley and John Brown to 91 combined receiving yards. Diggs was able to get the best of Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward for a few plays and a touchdown — but that was as low of an output as those players have had all year.
Beasley will see rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed — who was injured for the Week 6 contest — in the slot for this game. As great of a job as Sneed did on Jarvis Landry last week, Beasley may be an even tougher matchup — especially with Buffalo’s passing volume.
3. The reliance on Travis Kelce
In Week 6, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce only caught five passes for 65 yards, but two of the catches were touchdowns. It’s been a season-long theme for the Buffalo defense.
The Bills have allowed the most catches and the second-most receiving yards in the NFL to opposing tight ends this season. While Kelce isn’t the traditional tight end, it still speaks to a soft spot in the middle of the Buffalo defense — and the Chiefs exploited it at the right times last matchup. The two scoring plays to Kelce were in the red zone, where Buffalo is ranked 28th in touchdown percentage.
Kelce’s involvement may have to spike even more when considering that Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White could disrupt Mahomes’ connection with wide receiver Tyreek Hill. In Week 6, Mahomes didn’t even attempt a pass in the direction of White. That will force Kelce to shoulder even more of the pass-catching load.
4. Containing Josh Allen when he runs
It’s the improvement in his passing ability that has made people drool over Allen, but it’s still important to focus on containing him before he gets loose on a scramble or a designed run.
His rare combination of speed and size make him both a powerful and an elusive runner at the same time. He doesn’t go down easy, but he’ll also beat a linebacker to the edge of the formation.
This season, Allen has the sixth-most designed rushing yards out of all NFL quarterbacks, per PFF. They’ve cut down on them, but they will run them — and they’re still effective in short-yard scenarios. Buffalo was the NFL’s leader in both third and fourth-down percentage during the regular season, and the possibility of Allen running gives them an extra threat that most teams don’t have in those situations.
It would be smart for Chiefs edge defenders to rush in more of a contain mode to prevent scrambling — while the designed runs will just have to be sniffed out by the linebackers.
5. The impact of (not) returning key players
It will officially be a game-time decision on wide receiver Sammy Watkins and rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Both practiced in a limited capacity all week and were designated as questionable when the final injury report came out on Friday.
Edwards-Helaire hasn’t played since Week 15, while Watkins hasn’t since Week 16. Neither has been sorely missed yet, but this is a matchup both need to be involved in.
“Playoff Sammy” has been the team’s leading receiver in the last two postseasons. He has been the perfect player to take advantage of less attention in coverage because of HIll and Kelce — and Mahomes has relied on him. They played well against Cleveland, but they could use the boost of Watkins against Buffalo.
Edwards-Helaire provides explosiveness at his position that could be useful in a game where deep passes are getting more attention. Running back Darrel Williams filled in great last week, but the rookie’s ability after the catch in open space could be a key to this game — if he looks back to his true form.