1. Red zone reversal
Coming into Sunday's AFC title game, the Bills appeared to have a decided advantage in the red zone. They had a 75 percent red zone touchdown efficiency on offense in the postseason and their defense was second-best in the playoffs allowing touchdowns at a rate of just 25 percent.
All of that changed against the Kansas City Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense converted on each of their five red zone possessions.
"They've got a lot of weapons. Kelce, No. 10 (Tyreek Hill), No. 17 (Mecole Hardman) gives them a lot of speed on the field," said head coach Sean McDermott. "So that gives them a lot of options whether it's run inside, run outside, move the pocket, so it's a lot to defend out there."
The success was a reversal of their recent play. Since Week 12, the Chiefs ranked 26th in red zone touchdown efficiency (45.8%). In 24 red zone possessions over that span they had just one more touchdown scored (11) than field goals (10). And those issues continued in the Divisional Playoff against Cleveland where they managed just two touchdowns on five trips to the red zone (40%).
But that was not the case Sunday as their success inside the Bills 20-yard line allowed Kansas City to turn an early 9-0 deficit into a 38-15 advantage that ultimately proved insurmountable.
Meanwhile Buffalo's offense sputtered inside the 20 managing just two touchdowns on five red zone trips (40%).
"I think in the second half we kind of got things going a little bit better, but our red zone efficiency, we settled for field goals and you've got to score touchdowns against these guys and that's basically it," said Josh Allen.
With Kansas City consistently finding the end zone at the conclusion of drives it simply put too much distance between them and the Bills for Buffalo to competitively climb back into the game.
2. Kelce complications
In the first matchup with the Chiefs in Week 6, Buffalo limited Travis Kelce's involvement in the Chiefs passing game, but he still managed a pair of touchdowns in the 23-17 victory.
In the AFC title game Sunday, Patrick Mahomes found Kelce in the soft underneath zones early and often. By halftime, Kansas City's All-Pro tight end had accumulated nine receptions for 92 yards. It forced Buffalo to adjust their coverage, but it led to big run-after-catch plays.
"I can tell you we tried to make some adjustments," said coach McDermott of their discussions at halftime. "We went to some man coverage a little bit more because they were hitting the ball underneath on us and then you saw the explosive pass play to Tyreek Hill in the third quarter."
The second half brought more of the same as Buffalo's defense struggled to find a consistent answer despite deploying several different coverage options against Kelce.
"Obviously, he's a weapon for their offense and we knew that coming in," said Jordan Poyer. "They were just able to make some plays like they've done all season long. Smart football players who understand leverage and the soft spots in the zones. They made more plays than us."
Kelce would add a pair of touchdowns in goal-to-go situations, scoring from one and five yards out on back-to-back possessions to help put the game out of reach.
"Number 87 is a unique guy," said coach McDermott. "And they've got a couple of unique guys like that. So obviously we've got work to do this offseason in more ways than one."
In two games against the Bills, the Chiefs talented tight end compiled 18 receptions for 183 yards and four scores.
3. Third down difficulties
Buffalo's offense had a tough time finding a rhythm from start to finish in the game. Stringing positive plays together proved difficult and it made the task that much harder on third down.
"Hats off to them. It's a heck of a team," said Josh Allen of the Chiefs. "They had a heck of a game plan going into it. We didn't execute and I didn't execute and how I should have to perform well enough for this team and you're going against the reigning Super Bowl champs who are 15-1 and the number one seed at Arrowhead and you don't have your 'A' game you're not going to win the game."
The Bills vaunted passing game, which led the league in third down conversion rate during the regular season, just couldn't make the connections on the money down.
Buffalo had just five conversions on 14 opportunities (36%). Three of them came on run plays or scrambles with a fourth via penalty before Stefon Diggs converted a 3rd-and-13 late in the game with a 15-yard reception.
"A couple of bad decisions on my part," Allen said. "Just the communication aspect of it too. They did a good job of being able to check out their blitzes and not really allow us any time to get back to what we were originally going to run.
"They'd make things kind of look like zero (blitz) and then they'd drop out and doubled on a couple of our guys and then they brought zero from distance. Just the whole operation we weren't fast enough to the line. That's on my part and being able to get in and out of calls with the crowd noise it's tough to do.
"It comes down to decision making and putting the ball where it needed to be and I didn't do that well enough."
Unfortunately, the team's third down struggles became a problem once the Bills reached the postseason.
In the Wild Card game against Indianapolis, Buffalo converted just two of their nine third down chances (22%). The following week in the Divisional round they improved marginally converting four of 13 (31%).
In the regular season Buffalo's third down conversion rate was under 40 percent just once in 16 games. However, in the playoffs it never climbed above that mark and against a more efficient team it proved costly.