Gameday is here! As we inch closer towards kickoff, let’s break down the five biggest factors to watch for in tonight’s AFC Championship Game.
Live and die by the Blitz
This game presents an interesting case study in defensive scheme vs. quarterback tendencies. Both the Bills and the Chiefs love to blitz, in fact, they rank 8th (35.8%) and 9th (35.6%) respectively in blitz percentage.
The only problem is both Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes become even more elite when blitzed. Both players have the ability to evade pressure, throw on the run and make “something out of nothing” with their scrambling ability.
In the week 6 match-up, the Bills did not blitz Patrick Mahomes a single time. They were committed to stopping the big play by playing multiple defensive backs with plenty of help over the top. Though this did work in limiting Tyreek Hill to just three catches for 20 yards, it didn’t stop the Chiefs offense from doubling Buffalo in total yards and passing yards.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott even admitted the defensive game plan was to give up small plays to prevent a scoring frenzy.
“This is an explosive offense, mainly through the air,” McDermott said. “You have to pick your poison here, what you’re trying to take away. On the other end you’re going to give a little bit. I’m not saying we liked what we gave up in the run game. That said, toward the end of the game we’re in the game as opposed to some people that are getting blown out because the ball is flying over their head in the passing game with Mahomes, Hill and Kelce.”
Josh Allen had his worst game of the season against a Chiefs defense that was without L’Jarius Sneed. The Chiefs did not record a sack on Allen in that game, but much of his poor play was due to constant pressure by the defense. Allen completed only 51% of his passes in that game.
So, will the Chiefs continue to blitz Allen despite him having so much success against the blitz? Will the Bills try to differ from their week 6 plan and apply pressure to Mahomes? These are the tough questions the defensive coordinators will be asking themselves this week.
The Unstoppable Forces
For 16 weeks, every team that played the Chiefs and the Bills knew their number one priority was stopping Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Stefon Diggs. Despite that fact, most of those teams failed to control the dynamic pass catchers.
Diggs and Hill are similar weapons that can create instant separation and turn any routine catch into a chunk play. Kelce is always open and is even better at sticking with a play that breaks down and getting open for Mahomes.
The question will be: can the opposing defenses shut down these inevitable threats? If so, do they sell out against those players and make themselves more vulnerable to the offense’s secondary weapons? Or do they just accept the cruel fate that the Diggs, Kelce, and Hill will get their yards and shut down everything else.
As mentioned earlier, Tyreek Hill only had 20 yards in the first meeting against the Bills and Stefon Diggs only had six catches for 48 yards. Travis Kelce went for 65 yards and two touchdowns. While the previous match up certainly doesn’t mean everything for this game, it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Keeping Josh Allen contained in the pocket
In 2018, during Mahomes’ break-out season, there was this myth that “keeping him in the pocket” was the secret to beating him. The analysis was that Mahomes was so dangerous on the run that you’d rather limit is options and platforms to throw from.
This, of course, proved to not be true as Mahomes has been one of the best quarterbacks from the pocket since entering the league. While Josh Allen might be the most comparable player to Mahomes at this point, he is more limited in the pocket. This is equally important because Allen is so dynamic as a runner.
With Buffalo struggling to run the ball well and Allen is contained and not allowed to be a running threat, this truly makes their offense one dimensional. Steve Spagnuolo has had some terrific game plans against mobile quarterbacks, especially against players like Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson.
If you think back to the 2020 AFC Divisional round, the defensive line basically engaged blocks and allowed Frank Clark to chase Watson around for eight seconds before taking a sack. The Chiefs were also without Chris Jones in that game.
Watson and Allen both have a similar trait: they never say die. Sometimes this can lead to incredible plays and other times it can lead to back-breaking sacks and turnovers. Look for the Chiefs defense to focus on containment as much as pressure in this game.
Accepting what is given
No matter what the Bills defensive scheme turns out to be in the game, they have still been a better defense in the red zone. It’s important for Kansas City to allow their play makers to make plays rather than focus on the deep shot. While Mahomes has been amazing again this season, there have been times when he looks for the big play over an easy conversion.
With the Bills’ elite safety tandem and direct effort to not get beat over the top, Mahomes will have to allow himself to be okay hitting the running back in the flat or just checking the ball down to some of the secondary weapons.
Whenever the secondary choices are players like Sammy Watkins, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Mecole Hardman, this still gives Kansas City an advantage. More than anything this also can help the offensive line get in a rhythm early by getting the ball out of Mahomes’ hands quickly and making sure his toe is fully healed.
This also means continuing to run into light boxes. When the defense invites the offense to run, they should accept the opportunity if the situation is appropriate. Controlling the football and time of possession, while cliché, does put more pressure on Josh Allen to make the most out of his possessions.
When teams are so closely matched, it can be a single play that makes the difference between winning and going home. Kansas City knows first hand that a few inches can be the difference between a Super Bowl and heart break. This is the type of game that could very well come down to which quarterback doesn’t turn the ball over or which special teams unit executes best.
Kansas City has a habit of leaving points on the field. It typically does not hurt them because they have points to spare, but in games such as this, they need to execute at the highest level. When Patrick Mahomes left the game last week the Chiefs easily could have had another four points if the kicking game had executed.
In Buffalo, the offense was driving for another score right before the half to either go up by six or 10 points. Instead, a rare Travis Kelce fumble ended the drive and allowed the Bills to attempt a long field goal. Josh Allen is more prone to turning the ball over, with 16 total turnovers on the season compared to Mahomes’ 8 turnovers.
Kansas City needs to force Josh Allen into a bad throw or a fumble to really increase their chances in this game. The last two years in the playoffs the Chiefs have had mishaps on special teams (2 blocked punts and a muffed punt), but they’ve had some dynamic moments too. Every element of the team will need to be working in sync to punch their ticket back to the Super Bowl.