(2) Buffalo Bills at (1) Kansas City Chiefs
6:40 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS
What to watch for: We've spent so much time talking about COVID-19 protocols in 2020 that we forgot the NFL's original protocol: concussions. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has a week to pass through all the steps required for a return to play. The list includes clearance from an independent neurologist. We should prepare for the possibility that backup quarterback Chad Henne will make his first career playoff start at the age of 35.
Why the Bills will win: It would sure help Buffalo if Mahomes doesn't play, and not just for the obvious reasons. In the teams' regular-season matchup, a 26-17 Chiefs victory, the Bills were determined not to let Mahomes get downfield. He threw for 225 yards, his second-lowest total in a game this season, but that was in part because the Bills were inviting the Chiefs to run. They did just that, accumulating 245 rushing yards as a team in the game. Without Mahomes, the Bills would not have to make that choice.
If Mahomes does play, the Bills are one of the few teams that can match the Chiefs score for score. The Bills are averaging 34.7 points per game since Week 9 of the regular season, and they're so confident in quarterback Josh Allen right now that they called for a pass on their first 13 plays of Saturday's victory over the Ravens.
Stat to know: The Chiefs will host a conference championship game for the third straight season, tying the 2002-04 Eagles for the longest streak since the merger. Those Philadelphia teams also were coached by Reid. The Bills, meanwhile, are in the conference championship game for the first time since the 1993 season. Their 26-season gap between conference title games is the longest by any team to have reached it multiple times since the formation of the round in 1970.
AFC Championship Game: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs, 6:40 p.m. ET
First thought: As intriguing as a Browns-Bills AFC Championship Game could have been — oh, the parties in Buffalo! What joy in Cleveland! — this is the best AFC matchup. The Bills emerged over the second half of the season as the AFC's No. 2 team and the only team that — when both teams are at full strength — could really compete with the Chiefs' offense.
Important storyline: This week will be dominated by Mahomes' status as he recovers from the head and toe injuries he suffered in Sunday's win against Cleveland. As much as the Chiefs proclaimed their confidence in Chad Henne on Sunday night, the AFC championship matchups will be very different if Henne is the starting quarterback instead of Mahomes. There was plenty to like about Henne's quarter and a half in relief of Mahomes: He made several nice throws to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce (it helps that those guys continually got open against Cleveland) and showed no fear in the game's critical moments. What's concerning? He showed poor judgment on his interception in the end zone, and that's the type of mistake he can't make in a championship game when possessions are at a premium.
Chiefs players and coaches expressed optimism Sunday night that Mahomes would be back in the huddle next week, but it would be foolish to speculate about an individual's return from a concussion. And that's not even including the left toe injury that appeared to limit Mahomes in the first half. Let's say Mahomes does play. Will his mobility be limited? And while Mahomes isn't a runner like the Bills' Josh Allen, the Chiefs have increasingly relied on his legs over the past year, and his ability to throw on the run is one of many things that makes him so dangerous.
Player to watch, Buffalo: This is hardly an under-the-radar pick, but this game — and the Bills' Super Bowl hopes — is all on Allen.He didn't play well in his first game against the Chiefs this season, passing for just 122 yards, no touchdowns and an interception in Week 6, and the Bills' offense has underperformed in their first two postseason games. What an exciting moment, then, for Allen, who has the athleticism and swagger to really challenge the Chiefs' defense.
Way-too-early prediction: In reality, this should be off the board until we know more about Mahomes' status. But what the hell — why not? Chiefs 24, Bills 21.
Buffalo Bills keys to the game
1. Josh Allen must deal: Baker Mayfield made several awesome throws against the Kansas City defense on Sunday, but a lot of them came against tight coverage. It also helped that Browns running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt dominated Kansas City's vulnerable run defense in the second half. The Bills don't have a star in the backfield, so the margin for error could be minuscule for their breakout quarterback.
2. Keep Mahomes and Co. off the field: But it can't just be about quick strikes. Allen will need support from lead back Devin Singletary, who wasn't a huge factor this season but will now go up against the league's 31st-ranked run defense in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders. The Bills need a balanced attack in order to control the game and give a so-so defense some breathers against one of the league's most dangerous offenses.
3. Make them use Harrison Butker: Both defenses ranked in the bottom five in the red zone this season, but the Browns stuck around Sunday by bending and not consistently breaking. Butker attempted four field goals, and he looked shaky with a short miss and a missed extra point. The Chiefs are going to get their yards and points, but Buffalo has to tighten up on third downs and on its side of the field.
Things to watch in the AFC title game
- The Bills survived a playoff game against the Colts where their defense gave up 472 yards, then one against the Ravens where their boffo offense managed only 220 yards and 10 points. The Bills will likely need both sides of the ball to play well to beat the Chiefs, but I consider the ability to win games in different ways to be the mark of a strong team. That's been the story of the Chiefs winning close games all season, and it was the story of the Patriots' two-decade reign in the AFC. (The Chiefs remember well losing 37-31 to Brady in Arrowhead in the 2018 playoffs before watching the Patriots scrape out a 13-3 win in Super Bowl LIII.) Consider it a good sign that the Bills are in the AFC title match without having played a complete playoff game yet.
- The Chiefs' defense stepped up on Sunday, with their stars Tyrann Mathieu and Chris Jones leading the way. But I can't envision them slowing down Josh Allen for four quarters like the Ravens did, or even like the Chiefs themselves did back in Week 6. The Ravens provided one blueprint to follow, refraining from blitzing, dropping back into coverage and making Allen be patient. But the Bills adjusted in the second half, and the Chiefs don't have the same personnel in the secondary to make the strategy as effective as it was for Baltimore.
- This Bills' offense, which was dominant down the stretch, still needs all its key pieces to play well on Sunday. The offensive line is on a roll. I'm not worried about Allen or Stefon Diggs, the AFC's answer to Rodgers and Adams. But Cole Beasley, who has been dealing with a knee injury, hasn't looked 100 percent; he and Gabriel Davis had zero catches on six combined targets against the Ravens. The backfield is also thinner without backup running back Zack Moss, who was lost for the rest of the postseason in the Wild Card Round. It's going to take the full Bills arsenal firing to keep up in a shootout, assuming Mahomes plays.
- The coaching matchup in this game is outstanding. Bills coach Sean McDermott, like so many others, once worked under Reid in Philadelphia. After Reid's show of bravado on Sunday, I want to see what he has in store for an encore. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll also changes his plan dramatically each week, like when the Bills only ran the ball three times in the first half against Baltimore. That's a game plan Big Red would be proud of, and it hints at a pass-wacky matchup between the two best young quarterbacks in football this season. At least, we hope both quarterbacks are available. A great weekend of games was marred by the injuries to Lamar Jackson and Mahomes, and I've seen enough from backup quarterbacks in these playoffs, with all due respect to Henne's understudy turn as 2001 Drew Bledsoe.
AFC Championship Game – Bills (2) at Chiefs (1)
Matchups to watch:
- The chess match between Leslie Frazier and Reid will be fascinating. Frazier, the Bills defensive coordinator, has guided a unit that has improved throughout the season. His defense will need to play its best game of the season Sunday at Arrowhead.
- In the divisional playoff victory over Baltimore, Frazier had his unit prepared to shut down the Ravens rushing attack. They were fantastic. They played disciplined football, not allowing Lamar Jackson to get outside. They kept moving defenders into rushing lanes. It was beautiful. When it was time for the Ravens to pass, the Bills were able to get into Jackson's face and cause issues. The Bills will need all of that to win Sunday.
- We saw the Chiefs run through the Bills in a 26-17 victory at Buffalo in mid-October, rushing for 245 yards. The Bills defense is much better against the run, and the Chiefs offensive line has regressed running the ball.
- So, this game, like most against the Chiefs, comes down to stopping KC's passing attack. Defenses must rush four and then mix up coverages. If you get predictable, you're toast. You have to confuse Mahomes, and even if it's for a second, that can allow pressure on Mahomes to force him into a bad pass. And, if Mahomes' toe is an issue, his mobility will be limited.
Fact or Fiction: Championship Weekend
The Chiefs can beat the Bills with Chad Henne at quarterback.
I still cannot get over Henne's late heroics in Sunday's 22-17 win over the plucky Browns. With two minutes left and the Chiefs facing a third-and-14 while clinging to a five-point lead, the 35-year-old journeyman took off and ran for 13 yards like he was Patrick Mahomes. I still cannot get over Andy Reid having the guts to not only go for it on fourth-and-1 with the ball on his team's side of the field, but to have Henne line up in the shotgun and throw a pass! The toss, of course, was completed to the impossibly quick Tyreek Hill, icing the game and sending the defending champs back to Championship Sunday.
All that said, though, this is fiction. The Josh Allen-led Bills are loaded, riding an eight-game winning streak that dates back to mid-November. Leslie Frazier and Sean McDermott's defense was sensational Saturday night against Baltimore, holding Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to just three points. Mahomes is currently in the concussion protocol. No Mahomes on Sunday evening would equal no chance for the Chiefs. Honestly, with the way the Bills are playing dominant complementary football, I expect them to win no matter who's under center for Kansas City.