The NFL’s Divisional Round will kickoff this weekend, a four-game schedule that concludes with a matchup between the (12-6) Kansas City Chiefs and the (12-6) Buffalo Bills. The AFC rivals will play at High Mark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, kicking off at 5:30 PM Arrowhead time.
The Bills are a 2.5-point betting favorite in this game, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. It’s a rare case of the Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes playing as the underdog, mainly because it’s the first time in his career he’s playing on the road in the playoffs.
That’s because Buffalo came into Arrowhead Stadium in Week 14 and escaped with a 20-17 victory. With the home-field advantage on their side this time, the Bills will be geared up to avenge the two previous postseason losses.
I have five things to watch in what will be an actual battle:
1. Containing Josh Allen
The Bills’ offense has evolved to not rely as much on quarterback Josh Allen over the six-game win streak; the offensive line and run game have stepped up. Still, the team leans on Allen to take off and make a play himself on crucial downs.
A good example was his 52-yard touchdown run last week. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo couldn’t help but gaulk a little when describing him to reporters on Thursday.
“When you put that tape on, and he’s running, the way he makes people miss at 6 feet 5, it’s amazing,” Spags marveled. “I don’t know where we’ve ever seen that... he could probably play fullback in this league, or tight end, offensive tackle, defensive end, linebacker, and be an All-Pro at all of them; I’m really not kidding, if he wanted to do that.”
Allen was heavily pressured by the Chiefs in Week 14, facing a season-high pressure rate of 49% according to NFL NextGen Stats. He wasn’t able to find as much scrambling room as previous matchups due to the Chiefs’ athleticism in their four-man rushes. At times, the fourth rusher would be linebacker Willie Gay Jr. reading Allen’s movement.
Look for the Chiefs’ pass-rush scheme to play with awareness of Allen’s ability to break the pocket.
2. Covering Bills’ variety of pass catchers
Allen will be looking to scramble against the Chiefs because Spagnuolo trusts his man coverage, and Kansas City’s secondary has momentum heading in. Buffalo will be missing wide receiver Gabe Davis; plus, wide receiver Stefon Diggs has a foot injury that limited his practice participation in Friday, after missing Thursday.
In Week 14, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed limited Diggs to 24 yards over 11 targets. That matchup could be even more important this time, and Sneed’s going into it with respect.
“He’s a great receiver,” Sneed noted in the locker room Thursday. “Smart, great route runner... he’s been hard working, that’s why he’s been one of the top receivers in the league.”
The rest of the pass defense has plenty to account for themselves. Running back James Cook had receptions of 25 and 27 yards last matchup, taking advantage of the Chiefs’ first game without linebacker Drue Tranquill and safety Bryan Cook; it was also Nick Bolton’s first week back from the wrist injury.
A healthier middle of the field will also need to account for tight ends Dalton Kincaid and Dawson Knox. The duo have come on strong: Kincaid has 230 yards and a touchdown over the last three games, while Knox has scored in each of the last two.
3. Attacking a depleted Buffalo defense
A similar story to the Miami Dolphins last week, the Bills were ambushed by the injury bug on defense. Starting cornerback Christan Benford, safety Taylor Rapp, and linebacker Baylon Spector have all been ruled out from playing, while linebacker Terrel Bernard, slot cornerback Taron Johnson, and cornerback Rasul Douglas are questionable.
Bernard is the team’s snap leader at linebacker and was replaced last week by the injured Spector. Johnson is the snap leader at his position, and Douglas has been the starter opposite Benford down the stretch; he is trending to play.
The Chiefs will try to take advantage with tight end Travis Kelce, whether he finds room himself or open things up for others. Kansas City should find success manipulating the second level of Buffalo’s defense.
4. Isiah Pacheco setting pace
Chiefs’ starting running back Isiah Pacheco did not play in Week 14, and his substitutes only managed 58 yards in his absence.
His role will be crucial to keeping the Chiefs’ offense out of pressure situations in a hostile environment. Buffalo’s run defense won’t make that easy, but Kansas City must attack the ground game in a similarly aggressive fashion as last week. Even if it wasn’t always efficient, the team accumulated 147 rushing yards and consistently sustained drives deep into opponent territory.
The focused effort can open up play-action windows, just like it did against a Miami defense working through injury.
5. Stepped up Chiefs’ run defense
On Thursday, Spagnuolo noted that the Bills’ offense has “become really challenging with the run game.” He noted James Cook, who has at least 13 carries in the team’s last five games.
It’s the commitment Buffalo has shown to a true rushing attack, and that will be a challenge for a Chiefs’ run defense down its starter at the point of attack: nose tackle Derrick Nnadi was ruled out with a tricep injury.
Veteran defensive tackle Mike Pennel will be relied on in his absence, but so will the entirety of the defensive line to not allow Cook easy access into open space. Look for defensive ends Charles Omenihu and Mike Danna to be used inside more often.
The linebackers must also hunt down Cook on handoffs to limit explosive runs. That can keep Buffalo behind the sticks, putting Josh Allen under pressure.