Sunday night’s Divisional Round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium should be an epic matchup.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills both have to be feeling confident as they come off convincing victories in the Wild Card round. Buffalo won the regular-season game between the two squads, but the Chiefs know that they are a different football team from the one that lost at home in Week 5.
This game will likely be defined by the matchup between quarterbacks Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes. We know Mahomes will be great — but we also know that he can’t do it alone. It could be that Kansas City role players will be the ones who step up and decide this game.
Heading into what should be a matchup we’ll be talking about for a long time, here are a few of the trends we’re seeing among Chiefs players.
Jerick McKinnon: Over the last couple of weeks, he’s looked like the best running back on the team — and his explosion has helped reshape the offense. Yes, the offense is still taking what the defense gives it — but with McKinnon, it’s able to get bigger chunks of yardage on the ground and in the screen game. This has helped open things up for the passing game — and in the Wild Card round, the results were on full display. The Buffalo defense is very good; they’ll try to limit the big plays downfield. McKinnon is now the team’s ‘hot hand’ — and if he keeps rolling, it’s likely to be a very different game than the last time these teams played.
Orlando Brown, Jr, Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith and Andrew Wylie: The Kansas City offensive line has evolved into one of the real strengths of the team. Early in the season, the rebuilt unit — including two (sometimes three) rookies — had their struggles. Patrick Mahomes wasn’t always comfortable, teams were able to get pressure with four rushers and the timing in the run game was often a bit off. But now, the interior three has become an absolute wall — and each of the team’s running backs has found success behind it. In addition, Mahomes has become more comfortable stepping up into the pocket to deliver the ball — and the line has really started to assert itself in the screen game, getting downfield and clearing a path for huge plays. In the last meeting against Buffalo, the Bills’ defense got a ton of pressure with four pass rushers, forcing turnovers and mistakes downfield. This time around, the Chiefs’ offensive line and quarterback are functioning at a much higher level. Improved execution could mean better balance, fewer turnovers and an offense that can’t be stopped.
Nick Bolton: In the previous meeting, the impressive rookie linebacker led the team in tackles — and tackles for loss. He’ll be a key to stopping the Buffalo running game — including the quarterback. If they can stop Devin Singletary — and contain Allen — on the ground, they’ll make the Bills more one-dimensional and predictable. That would allow the pass rushers to pin their ears back and get pressure, forcing game-changing plays. Bolton’s ability to get into the backfield (and wrap up when he gets there) has been a big part of this defense playing better against the run — thereby helping them get off the field. In this Divisional game, the Chiefs will need their young linebackers in full force.
Others trending in the right direction this week: Mecole Hardman, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Melvin Ingram, Blake Bell and Byron Pringle
Derrick Gore and Darrel Williams: The landscape of the Chiefs’ running back room has shifted. McKinnon is looking like this year’s Damien Williams — and Clyde Edwards-Helaire is set to make his return to share the load against the Bills. Williams is still not healthy — and in very limited recent snaps, Gore has largely been ineffective. At least for this matchup, these two are very unlikely to be a factor.
DeAndre Baker and Mike Hughes: The Buffalo receiving group — led by wide receiver Stefon Diggs and tight end Dawson Knox — will put a strain on any secondary. The Chiefs are at their best when L’Jarius Sneed, Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton are on the field together — and Hughes is used in a more limited role. Baker has been inactive much of the season — but with Rashad Fenton likely out (again) with a back injury, he may see the field. Allen is the type of quarterback who can fit a pass in a tight spot downfield — even against good coverage. Both Hughes and Baker can often allow a little too much separation and can be outjumped by bigger receivers. If the pass rush isn’t getting home, Allen could end up targeting either defensive back, leading to a long day for the Chiefs’ defense. Also watch for miscommunications and blown coverages in this group. If those problems pop back up, it could be a big issue.
Others trending in the wrong direction this week: Josh Gordon and Charvarius Ward
Value (sleeper) pick: Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Given how well the other Kansas City backs have played in his absence, I think we’re all sleeping on the second-year player. But a healthy Edwards-Helaire is a great complement to what this team does on offense. His ability to grind out tough yards, break tackles and make plays in the passing game can be a key to keeping the chains moving when things get tough. Beating Buffalo will take a full-team effort — and being able to mix Edwards-Helaire in with McKinnon could be a game-changer.
Bonus deep, deep sleeper pick: Dorian O’Daniel
In this game, Allen’s rushing ability is one of the defense’s biggest concerns. It doesn’t often employ a “spy” on a rushing quarterback — but when it has done so, O’Daniel has been the one who got the call. While he rarely sees the field on defense, he has the speed and closing ability to keep tabs on Allen. He also has a knack for making big hits, so he could be the type of enforcer they need to bring down the big quarterback. Ron Kopp and I talked about this during this week’s Arrowhead Pride Out of Structure podcast: an ideal quarterback spy is someone who doesn’t otherwise have a big defensive role; you wouldn’t want to see either Willie Gay Jr. or Tyrann Mathieu limit themselves because they are focusing on one player. But bringing in O’Daniel for the job — instead of Daniel Sorensen or Ben Niemann — could be the type of unexpected chess move that could get the job done.