NFL 2020 AFC Championship Game: Bills at Chiefs Part II

If Patrick Mahomes has a weakness, it’s the same one all players share: their health. If Mahomes is not healthy enough to play at his usual high level on Sunday, then all bets are off for Kansas City’s chances to return to a second straight Super Bowl. They just got by the Browns without him to host their third straight AFC Championship Game, but the Bills are a tougher opponent than what the Chiefs have been facing in the playoffs.

Mahomes’ health is the dark cloud hanging over what could be a great game. I will write with the assumption that he is going to play and play well, but there is real uncertainty there.

If you are wondering why the title says Part II, that is partially a reference to this being a Week 6 rematch as both Conference Championship Games are this weekend, but also because I already wrote a preview for this game at Sportsbook Review.

For my first preview of Bills-Chiefs, click here.

First, some quick notes on Conference Championship Games that were rematches from the regular season since 1978 that can apply to both games on Sunday:

  • The playoff record for the team that won the last meeting is 34-24 (.586) as the 49ers swept the Packers last year, but the Chiefs came back to beat the Titans.
  • The home team in the playoffs is 39-19 (.672).
  • Teams like Kansas City who played the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 20-8 (.714).
  • Teams like Kansas City who won the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 12-2 (.857), but the two losers were Andy Reid’s 2003 Eagles (vs. Panthers) and the 2007 Packers (vs. Giants).
  • The playoff record for a road loser switching venues in the playoffs like Green Bay this week is 8-6 (.571) as the Chiefs were able to beat the Titans that way last year.
  • The team who was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups (2020 Chiefs and Packers apply) is 21-10 (.677) ATS and 24-7 (.774) SU in the title game.

Bills at Chiefs (-3)

While a lot of the attention this weekend will be on Mahomes’ health, Aaron Rodgers rewriting his worst game of the year, and that King of Kings from Tampa Bay, the quiet story is that Josh Allen and the Bills had their weakest offensive game against the Chiefs in Week 6.

So when Allen says the Bills aren’t going to change who they are this week, I have to question if that means another disappointing performance after they had a season-low 206 yards in Week 6.

The Bills love going with Allen-heavy game plans, which mostly means him throwing to his wide receivers, but he could also run as he did eight times against the Chiefs for 42 yards. The only games where Allen rushed for more yards this year were the two Jets games (terrible defense) and 54 yards in the playoff opener against the Colts. He doesn’t do it as often this year, but that is part of his skillset that he should feel free to use this weekend when he can play like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t if they lose.

I really do not believe Allen can win this game by throwing 40+ passes and handing off no more than 15 times for minimal rushing yardage. That just does not fit into the way teams beat the Chiefs, which usually involves eating up the clock and being productive on the ground and efficient through the air. Lots of points and yards are obvious, but the Chiefs usually cover so well while staying shaky against the run (31st in DVOA) that I don’t think you can score 28+ on them by being one dimensional with the pass.

The Bills went ultra pass-happy against Baltimore and scored 10 points out of it. They have actually been fortunate this postseason that the defense has stepped up or else we’d be talking about another 500-point team from the regular season crashing in the playoffs. The Bills were No. 1 in third-down conversion rate (49.7%) in the regular season, but they are only 6-of-21 (28.6%) in these playoffs. They survived the terrible field position to score enough points against the Colts, getting the game-winning stop on defense to end the game (and Philip Rivers’ career). But they didn’t get a turnover in that game on defense, and only got one against Baltimore. Granted, it was a huge one as it was a 101-yard pick-six, but the Bills don’t play great defense the way they did in 2019. It’s more on the offense to deliver and the results have been a bit mixed so far in these big games.

Against AFC playoff teams this year, the Bills’ offense scored 16 points in a loss to the Titans, 17 points in a loss to the Chiefs, 20 points in a win over the Steelers (plus a pick-six), 27 points against the Colts in the wild card, and 10 points (plus a pick-six) against the Ravens last week.

Could they have scored a late touchdown if they really needed to against Pittsburgh instead of running out the clock? Maybe. A field goal for sure, or as sure as those come these days. Did they miss two makeable field goals against the Ravens? Yes, but even if we’re adding these to the totals, scoring 16-27 points is not likely to get the job done against Mahomes and the Chiefs. Well, assuming it’s the regular Mahomes.

As I detailed in these charts last week, beating Mahomes is a lot of hard work. You usually have to score more than 28 points, dominate the clock by moving the ball for a lot of yards, run the ball well, stop Mahomes late or deny him the ball altogether, and even then, you better catch some breaks with penalties and turnovers.

Here is the chart again for the only nine teams to beat the Chiefs with Mahomes:

I then had this second chart with teams going 0-24 against the Chiefs despite scoring at least 20 points.

Finally, here is a new third chart of the other games in Mahomes’ career where teams went 1-19 because they didn’t score 20+ points. This includes the Bills in Week 6 and the Browns on Sunday.

Notice in these 20 games that only the 2019 Colts, the lone winner here, were able to dominate time of possession, rush for 180 yards, recover the obligatory Chiefs fumble, close the game out in the fourth quarter, and take advantage of a huge penalty night by Kansas City.

Even then, fans will point out that Mahomes was shaken up a couple times in this game. That is fair, but that is also something that Buffalo could take advantage of this week if he’s not 100%, and I haven’t even mentioned the toe yet that he banged up on a touchdown pass and it seemed to affect his throwing afterwards.

Now I’m still not sure why there is so much cynicism over running the ball against the Chiefs. It’s not like any of these games were blowouts where the winning team piled up big rushing numbers late with the lead. No one blows out Mahomes. No one even holds a large deficit for very long (see 2019 Texans) against him. That is not at all how those games played out, but it is a fact that the only team to beat him without rushing for 119+ yards (2018 Rams) needed to score 54 points to do so. And even then, they needed two late interceptions off him.

I am not saying that Devin Singletary has to morph into Thurman Thomas on Sunday and rush 33 times for 186 yards and three touchdowns. If that sounds specific, it’s because in 1993, the Chiefs beat the Bills in the regular season 23-7. Thomas was held to 25 yards on 15 carries. In the rematch in the AFC Championship Game, the last time the Bills were in one, Thomas rushed 33 times for 186 yards and the Bills won 30-13. Joe Montana was knocked out in the third quarter for Kansas City.

Buffalo only has three games this season where it rushed for 170+ yards, so it’s not likely something the Bills will be comfortable with doing this week. Still, I just think this is a matchup where they have to show more balance than they have in a lot of their games this season. The Chiefs did a good job of stopping them on third down, preventing any big plays (only one play over 15 yards), and they held Stefon Diggs to 46 yards.

Meanwhile, how will the Chiefs approach the Bills on offense? In Week 6, they rushed for a season-high 245 yards in a dominant game by Clyde Edwards-Helaire. That is also uncharacteristic of the Chiefs’ season, though they had a similar mix of run and pass in New Orleans a few weeks back. The Chiefs hope to have CEH, No. 2 wide receiver Sammy Watkins (also didn’t play Week 6 vs. his old team), and of course a high-functioning Mahomes back for Sunday, which would be great timing to have this offense intact for a change.

Watkins has had some big playoff catches for the Chiefs since 2018. Maybe the Bills can shut down Tyreek Hill again with Tre’Davious White, but what do you do with Travis Kelce? He had two touchdowns in Week 6. Then even if you slow down the top weapons, Mahomes finds a way to hit the biggest play of the game to Byron Pringle.

Perhaps the main reason this game is in Kansas City is because of what Mahomes was able to do on a 3rd-and-12 with just over four minutes left in a 23-17 game in Week 6. He found Pringle for 37 yards and that set up a field goal that iced the game at 26-17.

If you screw that play up and give Allen a chance at a game-winning touchdown drive, then maybe things are looking much differently right now. But making those plays late to win the game is something Mahomes and this offense has done all year. They absolutely are playing with fire by letting teams hang around. Their last eight wins have been by fewer than seven points, a streak no one’s ever had before in NFL history. Maybe the Cleveland finish, which was again the offense running out the clock in the final four minutes (but with Chad Henne), would not have been so close if Mahomes didn’t get knocked out.

But it just seems that no matter how the game starts or how well Mahomes builds a lead, the Kansas City games come down to the final minutes and possessions. It was good to see the defense hold late against Cleveland, but that was a pretty poor drive by Baker Mayfield and company when they last had the ball. The offense ran out the clock for the defense again. If you have to stop Allen and Diggs in the final minutes, that could be a different outcome.

We should learn pretty early just how healthy Mahomes is. If it’s business as usual, then I love the Chiefs to cover in this matchup and go back to the Super Bowl. But if it’s a shaky start and tough game to get through, then Buffalo has the scoring capability to pull this off and may not even have to play its very best game to get it done. It just has to play a hell of a lot better than Week 6 and last week on offense.

If that happens, then we’ll forever be questioning why the Chiefs ran Mahomes on an option play at midfield. Why risk the season for such a marginal gain when your quarterback’s health is the only thing that can seemingly stop him?

Final: Chiefs 30, Bills 24

3 thoughts on “NFL 2020 AFC Championship Game: Bills at Chiefs Part II

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