Rarely does a game this early in the season mean as much for two contenders. But the Week 5 showdown between the Kansas City Chiefs (2-2) and the Buffalo Bills (3-1) will significantly impact the AFC playoff picture.
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Chiefs are three-point favorites over the team they beat twice during the 2020 season — the last one for the AFC championship. So far this season, the Bills have looked like the stronger contender, finding success on both sides of the ball.
A win for the Bills would give them a two-game lead over the Chiefs in the AFC standings — plus the tiebreaker. It would also mean Kansas City would not have the tiebreaker against three potential AFC playoff teams: the Bills, the Los Angeles Chargers and the Baltimore Ravens.
A win for the Chiefs would pull them even with Buffalo — plus give them the tiebreaker over the Bills and the Cleveland Browns.
I have five things to watch in one of the most exciting games of the season.
1. Limiting big plays from Josh Allen
The good news: Josh Allen hasn’t played at an MVP level since the end of last season. The bad news: the Chiefs’ defense might be exactly what he needs to get back on track.
Among qualified quarterbacks, Allen ranks 27th in completion percentage, 24th in yards per attempt and 19th in passer rating. Allen has just two interceptions but also has eight turnover-worthy plays, which is a Pro Football Focus statistic that accounts for any play that could have led to a turnover — even if it didn’t.
All of that said, Allen has still made plenty of big-time plays — and similar to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, he can use them to offset mistakes. Limiting Allen will take a great effort from all levels of the defense: the pass rush to contain him to the pocket, the linebackers to limit his yardage on scrambles or rushes, and the secondary to cover receivers for the entire length of the play.
The defense also needs to take advantage of the one or two times that Allen will typically put the ball in harm’s way. The Chiefs haven’t forced a turnover in two weeks. In this game, any turnover could make the difference.
2. Trusting the running game
I’ll always advocate for the football remaining in Mahomes’ hands so that he can throw as much as possible. But defenses have continually invited Kansas City to run by playing soft, deep pass coverage — and the Chiefs should continue to take what defenses are giving them.
The Chiefs couldn’t have the same success in the AFC championship — running backs totaled just 59 rushing yards — but Mahomes was basically flawless in the short and intermediate levels of the field.
If the Chiefs can achieve that level of passing efficiency — while continuing to own the trenches with their run blocking — the balance between the two will be impossible for any defense to slow down.
3. Building on last week’s red-zone defense
After forcing three field goals in six red-zone drives last week, the Chiefs’ defense has gone from the worst in the league to... the fifth-worst. They could thank the Philadelphia Eagles for some bad decision-making and penalties — but they did seem to tighten up in that area of the field, too.
Meanwhile, the Bills’ offense has had trouble finishing their drives once they reach the red zone. They’ve been inside the opposing 20-yard line more often than any other team but rank 23rd in red-zone touchdown rate. Allen has a completion percentage of 56% in the red zone — while the offensive line hasn’t been able to get a consistent push when trying to score on the ground.
Kansas City’s defense has a chance to build on last week’s red-zone improvement.
4. Leaning on Travis Kelce in the short and intermediate areas
Last season, Buffalo had no answer for Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce. In the two matchups, he totaled 183 yards on 18 receptions and three touchdowns. He did most of his damage less than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage; he had just one catch further away: a touchdown reception in the corner of the end zone.
With the Bills focused on limiting significant gains through the air, Mahomes is likely to rely upon Kelce’s ability to find the open passing windows in short and intermediate areas. The Bills will try to bracket Kelce in coverage to take away his targets — but somehow, the tight end always seems to find a place where Mahomes can squeeze the ball to him.
Even if they do successfully take him away — while also paying extra attention to wide receiver Tyreek Hill — a new face may have an easier time making a mark...
5. Josh Gordon’s impact on the offense
Wide receiver Josh Gordon’s Chiefs debut may happen on Sunday. He has apparently impressed the coaches enough for the team to use a roster spot for him; if he still needed more time, there was no harm in keeping him on the practice squad.
Even if it’s for just a handful of plays, Gordon’s presence could be impactful. While he’s been known for deep-ball receptions, he hasn’t played for a while. If the Bills don’t respect his speed, he could make big plays in open areas of the field when there is attention on Hill and Kelce.
But if the Buffalo defense does give Gordon respect, it can only help open up larger throwing windows for Kelce and Hill — not to mention the secondary receivers behind them.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.