The Buffalo Bills are firing on all cylinders as the NFL playoffs get underway. But does the AFC still belong to the Chiefs? ESM investigates.
Are you ready to party like it’s 1994? For once, someone other than New York Rangers fans are willing to do so in the Empire State.
Five months before Mark Messier accepted the Stanley Cup at Madison Square Garden, the Buffalo Bills battled the Kansas City Chiefs for AFC supremacy in January’s conference title game at what-was-then-known-as Rich Stadium. Through a dominant effort from Thurman Thomas (186 rushing yards and three scores), Buffalo rolled to a 30-13 victory that clinched their fourth consecutive Super Bowl berth.
27 years later, the two teams appear to be on a collision course toward a rematch in the game’s 2021 edition. Kansas City (14-2) and Buffalo (13-3) are the top two seeds in the first edition of the revamped AFC playoffs. Fulfilling the star-crossed prophecies of Western New York sports, Buffalo secure the second overall seed…in the first year that the conference runner-up is not entitled to a bye week (or at least first since the adjusted 1982 playoffs due to a players’ strike). The lone automatic advancement goes to the defending champion Chiefs, while the Bills take on the first extra wild-card, the seventh-seeded Indianapolis Colts, in the official postseason opener on Saturday afternoon (1:05 p.m. ET, CBS). Buffalo missed out on a first-round bye, but, on the brighter side, the earliest they would face the Chiefs is the potential conference title game.
So should the Bills, slowly becoming America’s adoptive squad, be the favorite as the playoffs get underway? ESM investigates why…and why not:
Why: They’re taking care of business
If not for Kyler Murray’s miracle in Glendale back in November, the Bills may have entered the playoffs on a 10-game winning streak…with their last loss coming to Kansas City. Since that heartbreaker in the desert and the ensuing week off, Buffalo has won six in a row, each victory coming by no less than 10 points. They and the Green Bay Packers enter the postseason with the longest active winning streak in the NFL (though Kansas City would probably have a streak of 11 in a row if they hadn’t rested their starters in a Sunday loss to Los Angeles).
The Bills are just winning games…they’re dominating them. Their point differential of 119 over the past six weeks is by far the best in football in that span (fellow AFC participant Baltimore is in second at 92) and the Bills’ offense is averaging just under 430 yards per game (also best in that timeframe). Team records are falling on both the individual (through Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs) and team level. For example, last week’s 56-26 victory a Miami Dolphins team that had much to play for allowed the Bills to set a personal-best for most points scored in a single season (501).
It’s not like the Bills are bullying AFC slouches, either. In addition to eliminating Miami, Buffalo’s winning streak featured a healthy Sunday night win over Pittsburgh. Save for the Arizona nightmare, they won every leg of their interconference slate, which included wins over the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks (who face off in the NFC wild-card match immediately after the Bills-Colts game). If this were the College Football Playoff, we’d likely see the Bills swiping one of the top four spots..probably to play Alabama.
Buffalo’s domination contrasts the relatively exciting football Kansas City has played. Most of the Chiefs’ contributors from their Super Bowl run are back, headlined by the lethal duo of Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce. But each of the team’s past seven victories has come by only a single possession. The last game featuring Kansas City starters was a sloppy 17-14 slugfest against the eliminated Atlanta Falcons, a game that avoided overtime because of a rare Younghoe Koo miss. Their top unit has another week to get things rolling as they simmer in a first-round bye.
Why Not: They have little playoff experience
The Bills have broken countless streaks of futility this season. One, however, looms large: a postseason win drought dating back to December 1995, when they topped Miami in the Wild Card round. The dry spell nearly ended in Houston last season, but victory slipped through their grasp in overtime. For most of the players on this team, their knowledge of January football stems from either the heartbreaking visit to Buffalo or the 10-3 Wild Card slugfest in Jacksonville back in 2018. The former loss still looms large on the Bills’ psyche as they prepare to attempt to finally get over the hump against the Colts.
“It still lingers a little bit, just knowing the situation of the game, knowing what I could’ve done differently, reads I could’ve changed. If I could change it, obviously would, but I can’t, and I’m glad for the lessons I learned throughout that game and throughout the three years I’ve been playing so far,” quarterback Josh Allen said to Mary Margaret Johnson of WIVB. “Without failure, you wouldn’t know success. We’ve got to find ways to put our best foot forward and try to get a victory.”
Kansas City, on the other hand, is the only team in the league that has won playoff games in consecutive seasons, reaching the AFC title game before their Super Bowl triumph over San Francisco last season. According to Mahomes, the former playoff trip played a vital role in his eventual Vince Lombardi Trophy hoist. In his first full year as a starter, the Chiefs topped Indianapolis in the Divisional round before bowing out in overtime to the eventual champions from New England in the AFC title game.
Mahomes mentioned just how important the prior experience was when gearing up for the run to Super Bowl LIV last season.
“For me, I think the only thing that is really different is having the experience,” Mahomes said prior to the AFC Divisional round against Houston, per Charles Goldman of Chiefs Wire. “Being able to play in games like this at Arrowhead and being able to win one and lose one. I understand that every single play counts, how much every single rep in practice counts, and how you have to take advantage of every single opportunity that you get.”
Mahomes’ quick adaptation from playoff heartbreak led to a Super Bowl title. Buffalo will have to channel similar energy if they’re hoping to end this season on the right note.
Why: Their defense is finding a dominant stride
Any battle between the Bills and Chiefs would likely require a backup scoreboard on standby at Arrowhead Stadium. Buffalo (501) and Kansas City (473) are good for first and third respectively in the AFC in scoring, sandwiching Tennessee. The Chiefs top the NFL at just over 415 yards a game, with Buffalo the first team behind them at 396.
But that’s where the Bills’ defense can step in. The NFL may be a league that worships an offensive deity known as “fantasy football”, but several important games over the past few seasons (i.e. Super Bowl LIII) have proven that defense still has its place in modern professional football. Buffalo’s defense is getting hot at the perfect time. Not only did they hold three consecutive opponents under 300 yards in December…almost an impossibility in today’s offense-happy NFL..they’ve been forcing turnovers as well. The Bills have forced at least one turnover in all but one of their past 11 games, the rare exception being their most recent visit to New England, when they allowed only 201 yards of offense in a 38-9 win. In their elimination victory over the Dolphins, they earned four takeaways, headlined by Josh Norman’s interception return for a touchdown.
In a report from team writer Jordan LaBarber, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds described the Bills’ defensive endeavors as “fun” after they dismantled fellow division champion Pittsburgh on national television.
“The biggest thing is starting fast, playing physical, playing free, and guys just having fun. I think, if I had to say the number one thing, it’s having fun. If you have fun, a lot of those things kind of take care of itself,” Edmunds said. “I honestly take my hat off just to the whole, you know, the team, just the people I have around me. I can’t do it all by myself. I think just us as a team, we are having fun. And any time you have fun, I think those plays just kind of show up.”
Why Not: They’re hurting
For most of the season, the Bills dodged the 2020 demons brought on by COVID-19 and injuries. Reserve tight end and goal line target Tyler Kroft, for example, was placed on the reserve list twice but was activated each time without further incident. But the Bills have some major question marks when it comes to their receiving corps as they enter Saturday’s game in Indianapolis.
Diggs would be the scariest absence, as he has missed out on practice on Wednesday due to oblique issues. The NFL’s leading receiver (127 receptions, 1535 yards, both Bills records) has indicated that he’ll be ready to go for the Colts’ visit, but head coach Sean McDermott was more cautious. Diggs did partake in Thursday’s preparation at Bills Stadium, as did Cole Beasley, per photos from Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com. The slot receiver Beasley set new career-bests this season (82 receptions, 967 yards) but missed the Week 17 contest with a knee injury. Thursday’s proceedings were his first form of football action since the week prior in New England. Isaiah McKenzie, fresh off a career-game against the Dolphins (three touchdowns, including a punt return), has also been limited all week.
Though Bills fans may exhale about Diggs’ confidence to play this week, the receiver noted how well the Buffalo depth compliments each other. Fourth-round rookie Gabriel Davis has tallied seven scores this season while John Brown made his return in the regular season finale after missing the past five games with a knee and ankle issue.
“Having that depth, having guys, in this playoff run, you don’t what’s going to happen,” Diggs said in a report from Parrino. “Guys can get hurt, (with) COVID and all the stuff that’s going on. Having depth doesn’t hurt you. It kind of puts you in space where that next man up is really, really real. I say more so give all the credit being able to find the open man, deliver a strike and being able to have success offensively with the guys you haven’t typically had a lot of reps with.”
Why: They have Josh Allen
There’s little doubt about Allen’s ability at this point. He has silenced pretty much any doubters with an MVP-worth season that has yielded 46 touchdowns through the air (37), ground (8), a trick play from Brown (1). To put that number in perspective, punter Corey Bojorquez has been called upon only 37 times.
But the feel-good stories of the NFL, particularly those found under center, can quickly be neutralized by a lack of playoff success. For example, it took one botched field goal for Tony Romo to be eternally labeled as a fourth-quarter choker (though his stats often proved otherwise). Jared Goff’s reputation with the Rams hasn’t been the same since a brutal day in the aforementioned Super Bowl against the Patriots. Conquering the postseason is the last hurdle Allen has to clear before officially cementing his superstar status.
Allen escaped a good share of the blame for the heartbreak in Houston, even though he mustered only one receiving touchdown (another toss from Brown) and he had a fumble at the onset of the fourth quarter that led to a Texans field goal. But, with more postseason futility, the inevitable, if not unjust, question of “how many playoff wins does he have?” is inevitably going to come up.
But, going into the postseason, Allen isn’t worried about his personal case. His perspective is entirely team-focused.
“The only thing when I’m on the field is my fear of letting my teammates down,” Allen said to LaBarber. “As quarterback of the team, your job is to move the ball and to score points. So, when we’re not scoring points, that’s my biggest fear. It’s putting our defense in a bind if we’re not moving the chains on third down, again, that puts us behind the eight ball and we’ve got to punt the ball away. That’s what drives me. That’s what motivates me. I fear letting the guys who drafted me, this front office, and this organization, down.”
Why Not: They don’t have Patrick Mahomes…and Travis Kelce…and Andy Reid…and…
October gave us a potential preview of this matchup, with Kansas City prevailing in a somewhat sloppy 26-17 triumph. Each side’s discombobulation could potentially be attributed to the fact it was a Thursday nighter shifted to a Monday late afternoon due to COVID-19 issues with the Bills’ prior opponent in Nashville. But the Bills weren’t looking for excuses.
“We weren’t good enough. I was not good enough,” said Allen, held to a season-low 122 yards, to LaBarber and Dante Lasting. “I got to do a better job. It’s plain and simple. I didn’t play very good tonight. I know that, understand that. This team can’t afford to have me play poorly. Early on, just not being as accurate with the ball as I should have been, making the right reads, making the right throws.”
There is, technically, no shame in losing to Kansas City. Last season’s Super Bowl run was a firm statement that they didn’t save the AFC from New England monopoly…they simply declared the conference was under new management. The Chiefs were not only set up for short-term success but packed things up for the long-term, locking Mahomes to his infamous half-billion-dollar deal that somehow seems like too little. Super Bowl hero Damien Williams (understandably) opted out of the 2020 proceedings and the Chiefs didn’t lose a step, sustained by Mahomes’ passing antics to weapons like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. So there’s little shame in colliding with a team of destiny and coming out on the wrong end.
But the Bills know that success in the NFL is far too fleeting to rely on the future. That Jacksonville team that beat them in 2018 went to the AFC title game and seem destined for a return trip. The Jaguars are now choosing first in the 2021 NFL Draft this spring.
It’s going to be hard to top Kansas City, but first thing’s first…beating the Colts on Saturday.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags