A big storyline heading into the Divisional round game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills was the defensive injuries plaguing the Bills. It was most affecting the back seven, off-ball personnel, especially the linebacker position.
The Chiefs attacked that primarily with the ground game, using pull blocks by linemen and formations with multiple tight ends to create blocking mismatches at the second level. By the end of the game, the group racked up 146 yards and paced the offense throughout.
The constant rushing success set the stage for a masterfully efficient performance from quarterback Patrick Mahomes. In a season-low 23 pass attempts, he registered a season-high 131.6 passer rating; over 17 completions, 15 resulted in a first down or touchdown.
The reigning MVP rarely missed a chance for a big play and made the difference in the 27-24 victory:
Exploiting Bills' backups
At middle linebacker, the Bills relied on A.J. Klein — a practice-squad veteran signed two weeks ago while considering retirement. The Chiefs knew that and targeted tight end Travis Kelce accordingly.
#Chiefs used Play Action well to open up downfield windows for Travis Kelce on the 1st two drives— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 23, 2024
Kelce takes advantage of 52, but the run actions also help by holding surrounding coverage defenders pic.twitter.com/UB9BiIeGf9
On the third play of the opening drive, Kelce takes off up the seam with Klein facing him to cover. The future Hall of Famer veers across Klein's face, then pivots back outside and easily creates separation for a completion in rhythm.
The Chiefs get creative on the second drive: Kelce lines up in the backfield, one of three players surrounding Mahomes at the snap. The play starts with run action, then Kelce leaks through the line of scrimmage vertically and runs a corner route; he beats Klein and continues upfield after a perfectly placed pass.
The play action sucks in backup linebacker Dorian Williams, who otherwise could be contesting Kelce's route underneath.
When Buffalo made a point to take away Kelce on those play-action looks, Mahomes had the time to find the soft spot pic.twitter.com/iTozjITGy8— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 23, 2024
As adjustments take place in Buffalo's coverage, Mahomes is unfazed. The Bills commit more attention to Kelce's side on this play, forcing the signal caller to continue through his progression to another target. That turns out to be tight end Noah Gray, who is wide open due to Kelce's gravity.
Travis Kelce's wide open TD was a combo of a great play design & busted coverage— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 23, 2024
S Jordan Poyer plays up close; it appears he should be bailing to the deep half
But KC adds a 3rd route to the 2-man Smash concept. Gray's route draws Poyer underneath #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/NjI9tARBWJ
Near the red zone, the Chiefs send Kelce up the seam again, and Buffalo inexplicably loses him to allow a wide-open score. The play design is strong, but this looks like the product of miscommunication in the Bills' secondary, trying to disguise coverage and failing. Still, Mahomes deserves credit for reading out the play and recognizing the shot opportunity.
Using his legs
With the offense rolling within the scheme, Mahomes rarely had to extend plays out of structure. On the rare play he did have to, he found big plays.
Mahomes was doing Mahomes things from the 1st snap #Chiefs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 22, 2024
He tries to step up past quick pressure from LT, but once he's spun around, his eyes are back up quick and the ball's out super fast
Takes advantage of the sudden re-direction sucking in the LB to Rice's side pic.twitter.com/36bnXmPkaG
On Mahomes' first dropback, pressure comes from the left edge, forcing him to step up past it. The pass rusher gets hands on him, but Mahomes spins off to get free, then quickly gets his eyes back up downfield. From there, he uses a rapid release to get the ball to wide receiver Rashee Rice. The fast reaction allows Rice to take advantage of the linebackers being sucked into the line by the near sack.
Mahomes always finds a huge scramble in a big #Chiefs game -- and it doesn't happen by accident— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 23, 2024
Here, KC overloads Buffalo w/ 4 routes to one side. On top of that, Bills have eyes glued on 87
15 sees the opportunity to bail left, then goes into playmaker mode pic.twitter.com/xMGqOhXmAv
Noticing the attention building up on Kelce, Mahomes finally sees the right opportunity to make a play himself. Kelce is one of four routes to the right side of the offensive formation, leading to a heavy coverage flow in that direction. Once the signal caller registers the one-on-one he has on the back side, he goes into playmaker mode.
Attacking cornerback Rasul Douglas coming to the line of scrimmage, Mahomes freezes him by threatening a quick throw to tight end Blake Bell — but eventually fakes it to shake the veteran defensive back. The 24-yard run set up a touchdown later in the drive.
Taking advantage of vertical space
With Kelce and Rice making plays close to the line of scrimmage, the Bills — like many of the Chiefs' opponents this season — sacrificed open space down the field to take away the easier throws.
I've talked all szn about the #Chiefs needing to make defenses pay for playing more 1-high S coverage— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 23, 2024
Here, Hyde comes down to take away Rice underneath -- so Mahomes trusts MVS to win vertically against 2nd tm All-Pro Taron Johnson pic.twitter.com/vEoHBdluLz
That's what happens on the first play of the second half: Buffalo's strong safety comes up to guard Rice over the middle, leading to Mahomes attacking the space available towards the sideline with only one safety deep.
Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling doesn't create separation, but a perfect throw makes it not matter. The pinpoint accuracy leads to a strong catch, setting up a touchdown drive.
The #Chiefs' 2nd big pass to MVS came when Mahomes had to beat a rare Buffalo blitz— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 23, 2024
When the outlet to 87 isn't there quick, 15 buys time for MVS to get across the field
Not having to reset to make the throw allows him to get it there before the S could fully recover pic.twitter.com/H1dfNHmjpk
The other significant completion to Valdes-Scantling came open due to one of Buffalo's two blitzes of the game. This time, Mahomes' outlet to beat the blitz — Kelce — is not open soon enough, so he buys time and avoids the rushers (with help from right guard Trey Smith).
Keeping his eyes downfield throughout his movement, Mahomes tracks Valdes-Scantling beginning to come open across the field. Instead of setting his feet, Mahomes puts it on him while moving, allowing the ball to get there before the deep safety could get to the catch point.
The special play was one of three completions thrown 20 or more yards in the air, the most Mahomes has recorded in one game this season.
The bottom line
It was a stellar performance from Mahomes, but the offense did stall on its first two trips deep into Buffalo territory. On the second drive, the gunslinger missed two shots to the end zone.
#Chiefs had 2 EndZone shots fall incomplete on 2nd FG drive— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 23, 2024
- Looks like 15 misreads leverage on first throw; Kelce flattens due to S having angle to take away vertical
- On a similar play, 15 creates a bigger window by pumping to the flat -- but the throw to 11 comes in high pic.twitter.com/f1BM3LWr3e
On the first, Mahomes places the pass in the corner of the end zone — but Kelce angles his route flatter due to the defender's leverage in coverage. It leads to a close miss.
On the second play, a similar concept gets even more open, but Mahomes simply misses the throw.
The team went on to finish three consecutive drives with touchdowns after this, but these plays show the offense was very close to having a wall-to-wall dominant performance.
The misses also show that a brilliant game from Patrick Mahomes still had room for improvement — but not for a lack of trying. He was locked in on putting a vulnerable Bills' defense out of its misery.