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Half an hour after the worst regular season loss of his career, as Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes stepped into the media room, the conversation began with a third party offering him an excuse about the footballs. Maybe they were too slick?
Mahomes didn’t lean into that defense, and so the conversation progressed to an apparent disconnect between himself and his receivers. Maybe that could explain his two interceptions?
Next, on to the dropped passes. Then, just plain bad luck.
And on it went. An array of moving targets, though, ultimately sought an answer to the same question:
What the heck had happened in a Week 5 embarrassment against the Bills?
“That’s a good football team — don’t get me wrong — but we don’t lose football games like that,” Mahomes had said that night.
A playoff rematch between the Bills and Chiefs — set for 5:30 p.m. Sunday in the AFC Divisional Round — begs the question to be asked again.
What the heck happened in that Week 5 blowout? And more relevant: Are the Chiefs better prepared to ensure it won’t happen again?
In short, it’s complicated.
We’ve frequently used this space to dissect the commonality in how defenses have attempted to shut down Mahomes and the offense this season. The simple explanation is they’re trying to take away the explosive plays by placing two safeties high in the defensive backfield.
It worked early on. The Chiefs aided the cause by making their own mistakes — dropped passes, fumbles, interceptions and the like.
But then the Chiefs figured something out. Offered the opportunity to see that scheme week after week, they developed better habits. Namely, patience. They’ve proven their ability to nickel-and-dime their way down the field, if forced.
The Bills play cover-2. They had the luxury of facing the Chiefs before those adjustments were made. That luxury is gone Sunday.
But the Bills have a counter-punch.
A change-up, Mahomes called it.
Buffalo often begins with a conventional cover-2 alignment, but the secondary throws in wrinkles after the snap. The Bills have two All-Pro safeties in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, and that comes into play here. While the safeties open in cover-2, one or the other will sometimes serve as a robber (or thief) after the snap. The concept is designed for one of them to cut off a slant, crossing or dig pattern — often surprising the quarterback, who expected a different look based on what he saw before the snap.
“They’re very smart, very athletic and really have an understanding for what they want to do as a defense,” Mahomes said. “They know how to kind of rock the two-high shells to go to one-high. They can both play up top or down low, so it’s a tremendous challenge to try to get a read for what they’re doing.”
So, yes, the Chiefs are better prepared for the Bills’ deep shells than they were in Week 5. Three months of practice against other teams will do that.
Preparing for deception can be a harder exercise, though not impossible. As part of that exercise, Mahomes has studied the Week 5 matchup, certainly. But he’s also examined the Chiefs two meetings with the Bills a year ago, including the AFC Championship Game. And he’s analyzed how the Bills have played more recently.
All in an effort to identify all of those wrinkles — or change-ups — the Bills might have.
And knowing there are more to come.
“I think you have to do everything, especially this time of year,” Mahomes said. “They’re going to have change-ups, obviously, that they didn’t do in the first matchup. They have a good defensive coordinator; they have a good defensive head coach; they have good players over there. So they’re not going to sit back and do the same stuff they’ve done against us before.
“I try to formulate a game plan for myself and what I expect them to do — knowing that they’ll have adjustments and I’ll have to make adjustments on the fly during the game.”
Sometimes it’s about knowing what’s coming.
Others, it’s about knowing when it’s coming.
The Bills are good at disguising both. The Chiefs and Mahomes have spent considerable time putting themselves in better position to both recognize both the what and the when and subsequently beating them.
Which prompts the proverbial chess match of it all. This is the fourth time Bills and Chiefs will share a football field in the past 461 days. Same coaching staffs. Same offensive minds in charge. Same defensive coordinators running the schemes and calling the plays.
Each of the initial three matchups has played out differently. In October 2020, the Bills tried that two-deep shell, and the Chiefs just ran the ball. And ran. And ran. They totaled 245 rushing yards in a 26-17 win.
So in a playoff rematch last January, the Bills adjusted. Didn’t want to get beat like that again. The Chiefs responded by putting the game back in the hands of Mahomes, and he went 29 of 38 for 325 yards and three touchdowns.
Then came Week 5 this season. The Bills kept their two-deep safety shell, but mixed in the robber and thief looks. Added some cover-4, too. They fooled the Chiefs on some key third downs.
And they got one.
The Bills have essentially built their team around the game that awaits Sunday — beating the two-time defending AFC champions in the postseason. Their secondary is as good as any in the NFL. Even since the season-ending injury to cornerback Tre’Davious White, they’ve allowed the fewest passing yards in the NFL.
The Chiefs are more equipped to counter than they were in the season’s fifth week.
After all, with three recent meetings, the book is out, right?
“Well, that book would have two covers to it — because they’d probably feel the same thing if that’s the question,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “So I don’t know about that. They’ll know us, and we’ll know them, so we’ll just go out and play football. I think that’s what you’ll see.”