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5 things to watch as the Chiefs play the Bills in pivotal AFC game

Both teams are looking to bounce back from losses, with the AFC playoff picture in mind.

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Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

For the fourth-consecutive regular season, the (8-4) Kansas City Chiefs and the (6-6) Buffalo Bills will face off. Just like the last three, the game will be played at Arrowhead Stadium. Kickoff is set for 3:25 PM Arrowhead time on Sunday, one of the premier NFL matchups in Week 14.

The Chiefs stand as one-point favorites heading into the weekend, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. That line has come down since it was first revealed, leaning towards a Bills team that is as desperate as a contender can be. Any further losses could be the nail in the coffin of Buffalo's postseason hopes.

Fresh off a bye week, too, the Bills are ripe to come into Kansas City and pull off the upset, one that would push the Chiefs further out from the one-seed race. I have five things to watch in a pivotal AFC battle:

1. Patrick Mahomes carrying the offense

Chicago Bears v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Chiefs' offense will take the field against Buffalo without starting running back Isiah Pacheco for the first time this season. In fact, it will be the first game he has missed in his career, and it's coming at a bad time.

As quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the pass game have struggled to find rhythm in recent games, the Chiefs have leaned on Pacheco. The starting running back touched the ball at least 20 times in each of the last four games, including the 123 yards he totaled against the Green Bay Packers on 21 combined carries and receptions.

The Chiefs will have to rely on Mahomes to drop back and throw constantly. He will have to maneuver around pressure: Buffalo has the fifth-highest pressure rate as a team this season and is tied for the NFL lead in sack rate (9.5%). Rookie left tackle Wanya Morris has his work cut out for him in his first career start.

Regardless of pass protection, this phase of the game will come down to whether or not the Chiefs' wide receivers step up to connect with Mahomes consistently.

2. Containing Josh Allen

NFL: OCT 16 Bills at Chiefs Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Bills' 6-6 record distracts from Buffalo's offense being one of the league's best this year. The Bills rank second in total yards per offensive play, second in red-zone conversion rate, and lead the NFL in third-down conversion rate (49.7%).

It starts with quarterback Josh Allen, who has the fourth-most dropbacks in the NFL this year. He is completing 68% of his passes and ranks second in touchdown passes (24), but the Chiefs know Allen's running ability is a crucial component of this matchup.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo acknowledged the challenge on Thursday.

"He's hard to bring down, he's such a big dude," Spagnuolo described for reporters. "I can't find too many clips on there where he slides. He turns into a fullback really. I think he's an elite competitor."

This season, Allen ranks third among quarterbacks in rushing yards on scrambles — but balances that with throwing on the run.

"He's always looking downfield," Spags continued. "I know I put a PowerPoint up yesterday: scrambling then throwing it, how many passing yards... it was like 483 or something. I think it's the best in the league... and he can tuck and run it too."

The Bills have limited Allen's usage as a designed runner so far this year, but it will assuredly be a part of the game plan this weekend in Kansas City.

3. A short-handed running back room

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

The absence of Pacheco is a blow, considering Buffalo allows 4.7 yards per rush this season — the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. The Chiefs' offense will still want to establish a presence on the ground.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be the primary ball carrier; he hasn't seen more than three carries in a game since Week 3. I believe the team will opt to elevate rookie Deneric Prince from the practice squad again and mix him in too.

Veteran Jerick McKinnon should be reserved for pass downs; he has not looked as explosive on run plays as he has in past years.

Watch for wide receiver Kadarius Toney to be used from the backfield, getting handoffs from shotgun like he did against the Philadelphia Eagles.

4. Matching up with Bills' pass catchers

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver Stefon Diggs is the alpha male in the Buffalo receiving corps. He will draw the attention of cornerback L'Jarius Sneed, but there are other intriguing matchups to consider.

Typically aligned on the outside, wide receiver Gabe Davis is a big-bodied, downfield threat (as Chiefs fans remember). The defense will want to match him up with either cornerback Jaylen Watson or Joshua Williams, avoiding the size mismatch between Davis and Trent McDuffie.

McDuffie will have a challenge of his own in the slot: Khalil Shakir, a second-year wideout who can make big plays after the catch.

After starting the year with more two-tight end sets, Buffalo has shifted to 11 personnel with Dawson Knox hurt. Rookie Dalton Kincaid has caught at least five passes in each of the last six games. Safety Justin Reid will be tested at all levels of the field, covering Kincaid's athleticism.

5. The return of Nick Bolton

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

Linebacker Nick Bolton practiced in full this week, on pace to be activated from Injured Reserve on Saturday and play for the first time since Week 7.

He is needed, with the injuries that are holding out safety Bryan Cook and linebacker Drue Tranquill from playing in this game.

In the five games Bolton has missed, the Chiefs have allowed 127 rushing yards per game. His playmaking on early downs has been missed, because it helps put offenses into third and long.

Buffalo ranks seventh in the NFL with a rushing average of 4.4 yards per attempt. That is led by running back James Cook, who ranks fourth in runs of 10 or more yards (21) this year.

It's Game Time.

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