On Sunday night, the Kansas City Chiefs advanced to the AFC Championship with an incredible 42-36 overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Here are five things we learned from this instant classic.
1. Somehow, this game was better than advertised
Here’s something you almost never hear: the NFL and its partners really undersold this game.
But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. After working late hours for the entire season — trying to make every matchup between .500 teams feel consequential — marketing departments across professional football were ecstatic to endlessly loop clips of bonafide-superstar quarterbacks Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes throwing bombs off their back feet.
Remember: these were the fine folks who drummed up this gem of a graphic to convince us to watch football on a national holiday.
NFC North rivals clash to kick off Week 12!— NFL (@NFL) November 23, 2021
: #CHIvsDET— Thanksgiving 12:30pm ET on FOX
: NFL app pic.twitter.com/T8uVulbFk0
Yet despite the week-long hype train for the second of (presumably) many postseason battles between Mahomes and Allen, nothing — and I mean nothing — could have prepared us for this game. You could have watched the 2006 Rose Bowl — shotgunning a Red Bull every time Vince Young successfully pump-faked a defender 20 yards past the line of scrimmage — and still would not have scratched the surface of the heart-attack-inducing madness that ensued Sunday night in Kansas City. To quote pop star — and Scripps National Spelling Bee hopeful Gwen Stefani — it was b-a-n-a-n-a-s.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Sunday’s playoff game was the first in which opposing quarterbacks each threw for 300 yards, three passing touchdowns and zero inteceptions. It was also the first playoff game in which opposing teams completed 70% of their passes (with at least 35 attempts each). If the future holds true to form, the blossoming rivalry between Mahomes and Allen could become one of the all-time greats.
2. Mahomes had the ball last — but earned the victory in regulation
As the pressure intensified down the stretch, so too did the focus of Mahomes and Allen — and the pinpoint accuracy of their throws. After the two-minute mark in regulation, Allen was 5-7 for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Not to be outdone, Mahomes was 10-13 for 188 yards and two touchdowns. In a word, both quarterbacks were nails.
There is a legitimate argument that this game may have been decided by a coin flip. Heading into the overtime period, Kansas City won the toss — and Allen wouldn’t see the ball again. Mahomes marched the Chiefs 75 yards down the field in eight plays — icing the game with a dime in the back of the endzone that found the reliable hands (and feet) of Travis Kelce.
Mahomes beelined to Kelce to celebrate an amazing come-from-behind victory. Soon after, the camera would pan to Allen — who was looking on in disbelief.
Mahomes to Kelce. Expect something different!? (via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/17KzSqq1Fc— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) January 24, 2022
At that moment, the juxtaposition between the two quarterbacks was the starkest it had been all night. They both willed their teams to victory many times over — but in the box score, only one could be victorious. On Sunday night, it was Mahomes — but Allen was right on the precipice.
Kansas City’s fanbase can empathize with Buffalo’s anticlimactic loss. In the 2018 AFC Championship, Mahomes and the Chiefs were also left at the altar — looking on helplessly in overtime as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots stole their date with destiny.
But to reduce Sunday’s outcome to a coin flip is to overlook the Chiefs’ incredible 13-second drive at the end of regulation. Buffalo had this one all but wrapped up — but Mahomes connected with his two favorite weapons to march 44 yards downfield in two plays that took just ten seconds. Then Harrison Butker — who had already missed a field goal and an extra-point attempt — was also nails on a 49-yarder to send the game to overtime.
Sunday’s result was the furthest thing from an indictment of Allen. If Mahomes pitched a perfect game, Allen threw a no-hitter. When Mahomes took over with 13 seconds left, Allen was fresh off a 75-yard touchdown drive that drained less than a minute off the clock. Against any other quarterback, it would have been the most impressive moment in a Divisional round chock-full of them.
But fair or not, those ensuing 13 seconds added to the Mahomes’ legacy. He remains inevitable.
3. Kansas City’s defense struggled — but individual contributors made significant impacts
With Rashad Fenton ruled out before kickoff — and Tyrann Mathieu landing in the concussion protocol during the first quarter — Kansas City’s defense struggled to contain the firepower of Buffalo’s offense. If Allen’s performance didn’t stress the Chiefs enough, they also managed to make things harder through their own mistakes.
Each one of Gabriel Davis’ record-setting four touchdown receptions occurred on plays where Kansas City’s secondary blew assignments — or... well... fell down. On his first touchdown reception, L’Jarius Sneed and Mike Hughes ran into each other. Then Juan Thornhill inexplicably let Davis get behind him to catch a 75-yard rocket from Allen. After that, Davis ran a route that made Hughes fall down and caught another touchdown. On his final touchdown, Davis was six-or-so yards from the closest Kansas City defender when he hauled in the catch.
Yet despite the struggles of the Chiefs’ defense as a whole, key contributors turned in performances that should bode well for Kansas City in the next round. Jarran Reed and Melvin Ingram each registered a sack in the game. In particular, Ingram was disruptive throughout the night; on several occasions, he blew past Buffalo’s right tackle to get pressure on Allen. My favorite wasn’t even his most impactful; it occurred on a play where Allen managed to evade a sack and scramble for the first down. But Ingram displayed his ability to get to the quarterback within seconds — and in the process, he swatted the tackle away with one hand.
Melvin Ingram pic.twitter.com/E7NTI8NEqN— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) January 24, 2022
For the second straight week, Charvarius Ward turned in a solid performance. With Davis going off for 201 yards and four touchdowns, Buffalo’s star receiver Stefon Diggs didn’t need to do as much — but Ward was determined to keep him contained anyway. He shadowed Diggs for most of the game — and held him to just three receptions for seven yards. He seemed to be getting his feet back under him just in time for hjs showdown with Cincinnatti Bengals’ All-Pro receiver Ja’Marr Chase — who gave the cornerback fits in Week 17.
On Sunday, I also was impressed with Chiefs’ rookie linebacker Nick Bolton. In their opening drive of the game — which went for 71 yards and a touchdown — it was clear that the Bills wanted to try to exploit the second level of the Chiefs’ defense. Repeatedly, Buffalo tested the lateral quickness of Kansas City’s linebackers with outside runs and dump passes to receivers in space. Early in the game, the Chiefs struggled to respond.
As it wore on, however, Bolton looked increasingly comfortable. He came up to make several sound tackles on screen passes — and blow up Buffalo’s rushing attack in short-yardage situations. While Allen managed to rush for 68 yards in the game, Bills’ running back Devin Singletary only gained 26 yards on the ground. Bolton was a big reason why.
As bad as the Chiefs’ defense was on Sunday, I’m optimistic they can turn it around. If Fenton and Mathieu can return next week, Kansas City’s defense should watch the Buffalo film once — and then burn it. They’re on to Cincinnati.
4. Kansas City was right to prioritize the offensive line
On a big stage, Kansas City’s offense-by-committee approach looked good against the Bills. Running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerrick McKinnon combined for 147 yards of offense — while receivers Byron Pringle and Mecole Hardman added 86 yards and two touchdowns. After a season full of questions about who would emerge as the number two receiver and the starting running back, the Chiefs gave a definitive answer: it doesn’t matter.
While bringing something slightly different to the table, Edwards-Helaire and McKinnon can be used interchangeably — running inside and outside the tackles, splitting out wide as receivers and working in the screen game. In contrast, Hardman and Pringle serve in different roles. With his speed down the sideline, Hardman stresses defenses — while Pringle does the dirty work over the middle of the field. Together, they make up a cohesive unit — dispelling (at least temporarily) any misgivings Kansas City faithful have had about passing over offensive weapons in free agency.
Against the most formidable competition, the Chiefs made clear that Mahomes and time are still the NFL’s most lethal duo — and that time comes from a stout offensive line. On Sunday, Kansas City’s unit wasn’t perfect — but it gave Mahomes the time he needed for his receivers to get open or to scramble for plus-yardage.
With Andy Reid at the helm, a healthy Mahomes at quarterback — and Tyreek Hill and Kelce always a threat to explode — this supporting cast is rounding out an offense with more than enough playmakers to bring home another Lombardi Trophy.
5. The Chiefs still have another gear in the playoffs
In my game prediction, I listed several tangible reasons why I thought the Bills had a good shot to knock off the Chiefs — but then I walked them all back with a trite comment about Kansas City being a different animal in the playoffs. It felt like a homer take.
But when Hill lined up to return a punt in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, I was reminded why it wasn’t one. Here was the fastest man in football lining up to return just his second punt of the season — the first coming against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round. He would take it 45 yards to the Buffalo 16-yard line. His returning ability — a proven weapon — was finally being unleashed in the postseason.
The same can be said of Mahomes’ legs. Against the Bills, his 69 rushing yards set a franchise single-game record for quarterbacks in the postseason. And the yards he gained on the ground were just the tip of the iceberg. Mahomes routinely kept plays alive with his legs — avoiding pressure and buying time for his receivers to get open.
In the offseason, we repeatedly heard how Mahomes needed to work on his patience and discipline as a pocket passer. He did that — and during the regular season, it was instrumental in keeping him healthy. But now that the bright lights of the playoffs are shining, his scrambling ability — which almost always seems to bring Mahomes Magic to life — is back.
Over the course of the regular season, the Chiefs intentionally left plenty of juice in the tank. Against the Bengals next weekend, they’ll look to keep dipping into those reserves. If there’s as much left as I think, the Chiefs may very well simply cruise to another Super Bowl appearance.