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5 things to watch as the Chiefs host the Bills in huge AFC showdown

We didn’t have to wait long for a rematch of the instant classic in last year’s AFC Divisional round of the postseason.

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NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

You’ll have a tough time finding any NFL fan or analyst that isn’t calling this Week 6 game the most anticipated of the regular season. The Kansas City Chiefs (4-1) are hosting the Buffalo Bills (4-1) on Sunday afternoon, with opening kickoff at 3:25 Arrowhead Time.

For the first time in quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ career, he is the betting underdog at home; the Bills go into the weekend as 2.5-point favorites, per DraftKings SportsBook. Buffalo did come into Arrowhead Stadium and win in convincing fashion last regular season, 38-20 — but the Chiefs got their revenge in the postseason, winning the all-time game 42-36 in overtime.

The Bills have remained mostly the same team, only improving at some spots this offseason — while Kansas City has had to adjust to personnel turnover on both sides of the ball.

Either way, each team is still led by a great head coach and an incredible quarterback, so I’m expecting another amazing game. I have five things to watch:

1. The plan of attack against Bills defense

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Unless Buffalo throws a changeup that it hasn’t shown yet, the Chiefs know what they’ll be seeing on Sunday regarding coverage and strategy to defend the pass. The Bills blitzed six times between the last two matchups; they primarily played zone with two deep safeties — and that has continued this year.

If they continue that strategy, tight end Travis Kelce will do what he’s best at — find open windows over the middle of the field by manipulating zone defenders that have their eyes on the quarterback and not him. If they bracket him with two defenders, it should open up space elsewhere over the middle — somewhere wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster has done much of his damage this season.

Being efficient on underneath throws that rely on yards after catch will be very important — something that rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore was given the opportunity to do at the end of last week’s game.

They’ll have to rely on quick passes, but they will have their planned shots down the field; we’ve seen Mahomes test the seam vertically a few times this year. His willingness to attack the downfield windows will likely depend on how the game is going and what the scoreboard reads.

2. Eyes on Josh Allen

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Chiefs might want to take a page out of the Bills’ defensive playbook to defend Allen on Sunday.

Allen has gotten to a level of play where you can’t worry about how to stop him; you have to focus on slowing him down and lulling him into an impatient mistake. Teams have done that to Mahomes, but it might be even more important against Allen because of his legs.

Allen’s scramble yards account for 31% of the Bills’ rushing yardage this season; they also make up 81% of Allen’s rushing yards. They will bring out the designed run game for these big matchups, but Allen’s ability to escape a rush and get 10 or more yards on a given dropback is what can demoralize a defense the most; it’s especially dangerous because he is so hard to tackle in the open field.

That’s why the Chiefs need to rely on zone defense, keeping off-ball defenders’ eyes on Allen and keeping everything in front of them. Allen can make them pay for that as well, but it’s the less deadly of the poisons.

3. Keeping Buffalo honest with a ground game

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

If the Bills stick to their traditional game plan against the Chiefs, Kansas City has to be able to take advantage of light boxes and help their late-down offense with successful gains on the ground.

In last year’s playoff matchup, the Chiefs running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon combined to run for 84 yards on 17 carries; Edwards-Helaire had two runs of 10 or more yards. That average of five yards a carry needs to be the floor for the backfield’s performance on Sunday.

If they don’t stay ahead of the sticks, Bills edge rushers — headlined by Von Miller — will have a much easier time pinning their ears back and getting to Mahomes on second and third down. An impactful run game could slow them down a bit, but that starts with the offensive coaching staff calling the more effective run schemes.

4. Helping cornerbacks on the outside

Las Vegas Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Everyone saw the Las Vegas Raiders attack the Chiefs cornerbacks on the outside with wide receiver Davante Adams. The Bills have a similarly-elite receiver in Stefon Diggs, along with another excellent outside receiver in Gabriel Davis. On top of all that, Allen is a much more capable quarterback getting the ball to those players than the Raiders’ Derek Carr is.

So the cornerbacks need to prepare for another test, but the Chiefs’ defensive staff needs to help them. That’s where the soft zone can come in, emphasizing to the two deep safeties to be mindful of vertical routes both towards the sideline and between the hashes. Not leaving the cornerbacks on an island as we saw at times Monday night.

The pass rush will also need to help by heating up Allen in the pocket. When the Chiefs are in those zone coverages, it usually has to be paired with only a four-man rush. The front needs to create more pressure without the help of blitzing this week.

5. The Chiefs’ pass protection

NFL: JAN 23 AFC Divisional Round - Bills at Chiefs Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The biggest reason for the Chiefs’ slow start on Monday seemed to be the flaws in pass protection — specifically on the edges of the pocket.

Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and right tackle Andrew Wylie had their hands full with a really good duo of rushers, and it doesn’t necessarily get any easier against Buffalo. I already mentioned Von Miller, but second-year edge rusher Gregory Rousseau has also been productive this season.

The Chiefs can’t have those two wreck the early game plan like the Raiders did, so the opening script needs to involve plays that neutralize them as best Kansas City can. Chip help, designed rollouts — these kinds of plays will be prevalent throughout the game, but the mindfulness has to start from the jump.

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