Divisional playoff preview: How the Bills can beat the Chiefs

·6 min read

Now we have the game that many are calling the de facto AFC championship game.

And with good reason.

After all, on Sunday night when the Kansas City Chiefs clash with the Buffalo Bills, it will not only be a rematch of last season’s AFC championship game, but also a matchup between two of the more impressive teams on the AFC side of the ledger.

The Bills enter Sunday as the top team in DVOA over at Football Outsiders, while the Chiefs sit in sixth position. Those are the two highest-remaining teams left in the conference, well ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals (18th) and the Tennessee Titans (20th).

While those teams will meet on Saturday, the winner will take on the winner of this game, which is a rematch of a contest from back in Week 5, which saw the Bills win going away, by a final score of 38-20.

What happens in the rematch? Do the Bills exact revenge for the loss in last year’s AFC championship game, or do Stefon Diggs and company have to endure another playoff loss at Arrowhead Stadium?

Here is how Diggs can wash away the memories of watching Kansas City celebrate after last year’s playoff win. Here is how the Chiefs can beat the Bills.

Run Josh Allen early and often.

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

You might have sensed by now a theme to some of these articles by now. Teams facing the Buffalo offense have a lot of things to worry about, but chief among them — pun intended — is what quarterback Josh Allen can do with his legs.

We saw that last week, as Allen ripped off a 26-yard run on the Bills’ first offensive possession, despite Bill Belichick, Matthew Judon (who he skipped past on that run) and other members of the New England Patriots organization illustrating how the threat of Allen’s legs posed a concern.

We also saw that back in Week 5, when these two teams squared off in Kansas City. On Buffalo’s opening possession, Allen carried the ball three times for 42 yards and a touchdown, and two of those plays were designed — in whole or in part — for Allen to be the ball-carrier.

The first came on this 3rd and 2 play, with Allen simply tucking and keeping around left end, on a play that also incorporated a backside bubble screen option for the quarterback:

In addition to catering to Allen’s power and athleticism as a ball-carrier, there is another method to the madness on display from Brian Daboll.

Similar to the Chiefs, the Bills are another team that struggled during the season against two-deep safety looks. Defenses playing against them kept safeties deep, daring the Bills to throw underneath or run the football.

When contemplating how teams might play against these two-deep shells last winter, I theorized that the quarterback run game might be a way for offenses to truly change the numbers in their favor, using the Bills as an example:

The Colts have their two safeties deep and show a light box. So what does Brian Daboll dial up? A quarterback draw. The play goes for 16 yards and a fresh set of downs, and would end up being the biggest running play of the game for the Bills offense.

Buffalo would not only get the win, but they would finish the day with an EPA/rush of -0.047. Still…not great! But better than they had been doing during the regular season.

Of course, as an NFL offense you do not want your very expensive quarterback to take on the wear-and-tear of a running back. But if defenses are going to lighten the box, keep two safeties deep, and dare you to run, then the answer — or at least an occasional answer — might be to play along. How? By running the football with your quarterback and really playing the numbers advantage. If defenses are doing to play with five (or even fewer, as we highlighted with some of the Iowa State designs from earlier) in the box, then turn +1 into +2 as an offense and design running plays with your quarterback as a complement to what you are doing offensively.

If nothing else, as an offense you might take some of the ownership back and instead of the defense forcing what you do as an offense, maybe you start to dictate the terms of the play back to them.

While Buffalo struggled to maintain a consistent running game, leaving Allen as the team’s second-leading rusher on the season, using him as a runner had the added benefit of getting the Chiefs out of those two-deep looks. While Kansas City used a number of them early in the game, they finished that Week 5 contest using two-deep safety coverages on just eight of Allen’s passing attempts, according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions.

They started bringing a safety down into the box more — perhaps also due to game script — and the results were not great for the Kansas City defense. On that night, when the Chiefs were in single-high, Allen completed 7 of 13 passes for 167 yards and 3 touchdowns.

If the Bills run Allen early, they might again get the Chiefs to start bringing a safety down into the box to try and change the numbers game. That is when the Bills offense can look to replicate what they did back in Week 5 against single-high coverages.

Send Patrick Mahomes back to campus

(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

What do the Bills need to do on defense to win on Sunday?

They need to send Patrick Mahomes back to school.

During the Chiefs’ early-season struggles on the defensive side of the football, when everyone was wondering if they had a “Cover 2 problem,” some pointed to the struggles and laid them at the feet of the defense, in whole or in part.

Why? Because with Kansas City struggling to get stops, Mahomes felt like he and the offense needed to finish every drive with touchdowns.

For Mahomes, that must have felt like a return to campus, when he was trying to propel Texas Tech to 52-50 wins every Saturday.

Watching the game between these two teams from this past October, I charted the Bills defense with aligning in a two-deep safety look on 57 plays — Cover 2, Cover 2-Man, Cover 4 (Quarters) and Cover 6 (Quarter-Quarter-Half). Now, part of this might have been due to game script, as the Bills built a lead early, but Buffalo clearly wanted to force Mahomes to either challenge their safeties deep, or be patient and settle for throws underneath.

To his credit, Mahomes largely stayed patient. He completed 27 of 40 attempts against those two-deep coverages for 231 yards.

A staggering 5.8 yards per attempt.

To be fair, when looking at this game from Kansas City’s point of view, you do not want to be challenging Jordan Poyer or Micah Hyde too often, as argued in the companion to this article. So expect Mahomes to try and test these coverages either underneath, or along the boundaries. But if the Bills can get Mahomes to be impatient, and start forcing throws into those two-deep coverages like this one from Week 5:

Then, Buffalo will be in good shape.

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