The Buffalo Bills will travel to Kansas City, hoping to book their first trip to the Super Bowl in three decades. While the team has experienced a charmed season thus far–benefitting from timely turnovers and a division that crumbled around them–there's no denying that the Bills boast one of the most talented rosters in the NFL.
They'll need both their talent and luck to overcome the Chiefs, however.
Squaring off against an opponent that is fully capable of matching their potent offense point for point, Buffalo will need to improve in all three phases of the game if they are to have a better performance against Kansas City Sunday than they did in Week 6 of the regular season.
Though the task may be daunting, the opportunity to get back to the league's biggest stage is a chance every Bills fan would gladly take regardless of the challenge. Here are our four bold predictions for the Buffalo Bills as they take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
1. Buffalo's defense continues blitz-heavy approach
While the offense has been the dominant unit for much of the season, the Bills pass rush stole the show in the divisional round against the Baltimore Ravens. Despite a lack of consistency in the secondary and an inability to pressure the quarterback with any regularity, it was surprising to witness the degree to which Buffalo sold out against the pass last weekend.
Generating pressure on an outstanding 36.6% of all dropbacks by Lamar Jackson, according to Pro Football Focus, the Bills excelled at shortening the field and dictating the type of action Baltimore was able to produce. Though the Ravens found success in the running game–where the team accrued 150-rushing yards–the fact that Buffalo controlled the game's pace seemed a far more significant factor in determining the outcome, rather than the numbers themselves.
Look for the Bills to try a similar approach against the Chiefs Sunday afternoon.
While Kansas City boasts an offensive line that has proved surprisingly adept at protecting Patrick Mahomes despite a rash of injuries and departures, there is reason to believe that the unit might be more vulnerable than previously thought. Despite ranking sixth-best in the league at the percentage of dropbacks that resulted in pressure, the Chiefs' inability to gain consistent yardage on the ground, combined with a lack of standout talent beyond Austin Reiter, might be a sign that Kansas City's success in the trenches is overstated. Considering that the unit has the luxury of protecting a play-caller that is more than capable of working out of the pocket, it can be challenging to get a handle on how good the offensive line is, independent of Mahomes.
If Buffalo is to pull off the upset, the Bills will seek to push the Chiefs line to their limit. Don't be surprised to see defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier throw caution to the wind by tapping even his defensive backs in a scheme to attack Mahomes in the backfield. While the defensive unit won't be able to blitz with such reckless abandon on every play, lest Mahomes buys a half-second to air it out down the field, Buffalo will undoubtedly be searching for a home run play that causes a turnover.
It may not be a perfect strategy, but they're rarely is against a squad as formidable as the Chiefs.
2. The Bills punt the ball only once
Just as Buffalo will look to bring pressure against Mahomes, Kansas City will likewise look to implement a similar approach against Josh Allen. While trying to collapse the pocket may seem a fairly obvious course of action for any team–which squad doesn't like quarterback pressures after all–the strategy is worth discussing because of how Kansas City utilized their defensive line in their Week 6 matchup.
Though the Bills were still a work in progress at that point, the Chiefs' willingness to bring five-man rushes on Allen forced the QB to rush his decision making for much of the game. Despite being successful at avoiding a sack, the quarterback looked uncertain for most of the day as he danced his way out of trouble and tried to improvise on routes that had run their course. Kansas City will almost certainly look to duplicate this effort, forcing Allen out of the comfort zone that is his offensive system and becoming a play-caller capable of switching gears mid-play.
Thankfully for the Bills, not only has Allen significantly improved his decision making as the year has progressed, but he has proven capable of fitting the ball into tighter windows. Making things more difficult for the Chiefs is the willingness of head coach Sean McDermott and company to adjust their scheme to counter whatever their opponents prefer to utilize.
If the Bills can avoid falling prey to early five-man rushes by the Chiefs, it seems a safe bet that Kansas City will revert to a more traditional four-man front as the game wears on. In doing so, KC will contest the action down the field, refusing to give up a long touchdown run to one of the Bills wide receivers, and instead operate with a more conservative approach while buying time for Mahomes to give them the lead.
While the Chiefs betting on Mahomes is generally a reasonable proposition, Josh Allen has proven capable of disrupting even the defense's best-laid plans. Given time, expect Allen and the Bills to keep possession of the ball for much of the day.
3. Devin Singletary scores a touchdown and gains 100 yards
One of the interesting strategies the Chiefs employed in their blitzes against the Bills earlier in the season was instructing their defenders to hesitate before rushing the gaps and attacking Allen. This delayed blitz disguises the action for a split second and suckers the play-caller into believing he will have more time than he actually will. Given that the Chiefs will display a similar tactic once again, one option for a Bills' counter is to employ running back Devin Singletary more often.
Should KC try to hide their attack, that should provide extra space for Singletary to work and move the ball up the field. While they may not be game-breaking runs, Singletary's ability to generate four yards on a rush may prove to be the critical factor that buys time for Allen in the passing game. Combined with the fact the Kansas City has struggled to stop the run as of late–allowing three rushing touchdowns in the last two games–and it wouldn't be a surprise to hear the halfback's name called out with increasing frequency Sunday afternoon.
4. Bills earn a Super Bowl berth, 34-28
Considering how similar playbooks are across the league, football in the NFL is about differences at the margins rather than broad-strokes strategy. Sunday's AFC Conference Championship will be no different.
Both teams will rely on their all-world quarterbacks to deliver points while positioning their defenses to bring pressure. Each will ask their offensive line to mitigate an extra defender in the pass rush and hope a contributor rises in the rushing attack. How each head coach adjusts their tactics to ensure that happens will prove to be the difference.
While many regard Andy Reid as one of the most brilliant offensive tacticians in the history of the game–and rightly so–it will be Sean McDermott that wins the day. Overshadowed by other coaches for too long, McDermott and the Bills will finally get their proper due.