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The Bills will live or die with the performance of Josh Allen

Buffalo has had a roller-coaster season — which has coincided with the ups and downs of its talented quarterback.

Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In this weekly series, I break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining its strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect its matchup with Kansas City.


A year after these two teams met in the AFC championship game, the Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills are again matching up in the postseason — this time, in the Divisional round. The Sunday-evening clash will once again take place at Arrowhead Stadium.

Overview

Not many teams have seen the extreme highs and lows the Bills have had this season. At one point, they looked to be in prime position to be the AFC’s top seed after beating Kansas City 38-20; at another, they lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars 9-6.

Offensively, they’re one of the league’s best statistical units for the second straight year — ranking third in points scored, fifth in total yards, third in third-down conversion percentage and seventh in red-zone touchdown percentage. They also finished fourth in EPA (Expected Points Added) per play and 10th in offensive DVOA.

Statistically, Buffalo has the league’s best defense. It allowed the fewest points and total yards this season while also allowing the fewest first-down conversions and passing touchdowns — and the lowest third-down conversion rate. It allowed the lowest EPA/play rate this year while also topping the defensive DVOA rankings.

Offense

There’s no doubt about it: the Bills’ offense revolves entirely around quarterback Josh Allen. Blowout wins over inferior opponents have skewed the raw rushing and passing splits — but when the game is within seven points, the Bills throw the ball on 66% of their plays; that was the NFL’s second-highest rate this season.

Even when Buffalo does run, Allen is its biggest threat. In scrambling situations, he is freakishly fast and elusive for his physique — but it’s his effectiveness as a designed runner between the tackles that can be the most dangerous part of his playing style. Per Pro Football Focus, Allen averaged 8.2 yards per carry on designed runs in the regular season.

The Bills understand not to put Allen in those rushing situations too often — you don’t want your franchise quarterback taking too many hits — but when it has mattered most, they’ve utilized his skills.

In this clip from the Week 5 game against the Chiefs, the Bills use two of them on the opening drive. The first gains 22 yards, while the second is a nine-yard touchdown run.

But at its core, Buffalo’s offense is a high-volume passing attack; there have been four separate games this year where they’ve dropped back to pass for at least 75% of their plays — including the first matchup with the Chiefs.

In Week 5, the Chiefs struggled to get consistent pressure on Allen, registering a pressure on only eight of his 30 dropbacks. On the 22 dropbacks in which he was kept clean, he averaged 11.2 yards per attempt — and threw all three of his passing touchdowns.

Wide receiver Stefon Diggs is the featured receiver, but Buffalo has a cupboard of auxiliary weapons: wide receivers Cole Beasley and Isaiah McKenzie can be hard to contain from the slot, while Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis can make tough catches down the field and in tight windows. Tight end Dawson Knox emerged with nine touchdowns this season; he and Allen have developed a great connection in the red zone, where six of those scores occurred.

Defense

After last year’s loss to the Chiefs, the Bills knew which of their position groups needed the most help: the defensive line. So they used their first two draft picks on edge rushers: Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham.

Buffalo’s starting defensive line still isn’t a top-tier group, but its depth allows for a fresh rotation of talented players — and in the playoffs, this really pays off; effective edge rushers like Mario Addison and A.J. Epenesa are coming off the bench. Rousseau has become the starting edge rusher opposite veteran Jerry Hughes — but this year, the most disruptive pass rusher has been defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who led the team in quarterback hits and had the second-most pressures.

Behind the defensive line, the Bills are strong in the middle of the field with very talented linebackers and safeties. Veteran linebacker Matt Milano — who missed the first matchup — has been the biggest playmaker at the second level, earning five passes defended and racking up 15 tackles for loss. Next to Milano is Tremaine Edmunds, who is an incredible athlete. He’s topped the team in tackles this year while also nabbing an interception and four other passes defended.

The safeties are the heart and soul of the Buffalo defense. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer have a long-standing reputation as one of the NFL’s best back-end duos. This year, Poyer played well enough to earn first-team All-Pro honors while racking up five interceptions, nine passes defended and three sacks. Hyde matched his interception total and actually broke up one more pass than Poyer.

With star cornerback Tre’Davious White injured and out for the remainder of the season, the Bills heavily rely on these safeties to protect the cornerbacks over the top. Overall, the Bills’ linebackers and safeties will cover a lot of ground — and will make every tight-window throw harder than a typical defense would.

The bottom line

Buffalo’s offense is well-coached has some key pieces — but none of that matters if Josh Allen isn’t on his game. He is the engine of the unit. Reducing his impact by being stout against designed runs — and creating pressure with the front four — can lower the unit’s ceiling.

When they defend the Chiefs, the Bills will likely employ a strategy similar to what they did the last time: no blitzing — and plenty of two-high shells — to put a cap on the Chiefs’ vertical passing game. While the Bills have the second-level defenders to make short passes even harder to turn into successful plays, their strategy may give Kansas City opportunities to run the ball effectively.