The AFC Championship game is underway. Folks, get ready for some fireworks, because these two teams can really light up the scoreboard with the best of them. The defending champion Kansas City Chiefs host the Buffalo Bills on Sunday evening, and if we're lucky, it should be one of the best games of the NFL season.
There's no need to delay. Let's break things down.
How to watch
When the Bills and Chiefs have the ball
Typically, we'd do a separate section for each team. But in this case, that's not really necessary. These two teams are spitting images of each other, and the terms of engagement will be nearly identical on both sides of the ball.
Both the Bills and Chiefs pass far more often than would be expected given down, distance, and score, and that makes sense, considering they had two of the three best quarterbacks in the league this season. Josh Allen took a monstrous leap forward in Year 3, completing 396 of 572 passes (69.2 percent) for 4,544 yards (7.9 per attempt), 37 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, adding 421 yards and eight more scores on the ground. Patrick Mahomes may not win MVP, but he remains the single most dangerous player in the NFL. This season, he went 390 of 588 (66.3 percent) for 4,740 yards (8.1 per attempt), 38 touchdowns, and just six interceptions. He wasn't quite as busy a runner as Allen, but he still added 308 yards and two scores with his legs.
Both Allen and Mahomes are blessed with absurdly talented pass-catching corps. The Bills have two All-Pros in Stefon Diggs (First Team) and Cole Beasley (Second Team), plus explosive supporting players in John Brown and Gabriel Davis. The Chiefs have two All-Pros in Tyreek Hill (First Team) and Travis Kelce (First Team), plus explosive supporting players in Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman. Both teams even have occasionally dangerous tertiary pass-catchers, like Isaiah McKenzie and Dawson Knox on the Bills, and Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle on the Chiefs.
Each team's offensive line graded out above-average in pass protection this season, per Pro Football Focus, with the Bills ranking sixth and the Chiefs checking in seventh. They each have versatile running backs (Devin Singletary, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams) who can both step in and pick up a blitz and leak out of the backfield to make something happen on a screen or a checkdown. Both quarterbacks benefit from their plethora of options, but possess considerable gifts that would drive their team's success even if they weren't blessed with so many options.
You don't really want to blitz either one of them, because they will pick apart your defense if you don't have enough defenders in coverage. Allen ranked seventh in the league with a 110.9 passer rating against the blitz this season, per Pro Football Focus and Tru Media, while Mahomes ranked first with an absurd 136.5 rating. They each rarely got sacked when blitzed (3.8 percent of dropbacks for Allen, 2.9 percent for Mahomes), and often made something happen by scrambling away from pressure, which they did quite well throughout the year. Both Allen (121.9) and Mahomes (116.4) lit man coverage on fire this season, displaying the ability to identify the correct receiver and throw him open on the rare occasion that their offensive coaching staffs didn't scheme someone open to begin with.
Both teams utilize four-man defensive fronts, with one superstar defensive back (Tre'Davious White for the Bills, Tyrann Mathieu for the Chiefs) and several strong supporting players on the back end. Guys like Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward, L'Jarius Sneed, Juan Thornhill, Daniel Sorenson, Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer may not be household names, but they are good players, who can more than hold their own in most matchups.
They'll each be tested more in this game than in most others, obviously. Breeland and Ward will likely tangle with Diggs and Brown or Davis on the outside. Sneed will be tasked with manning up Beasley in the slot. While the Bills might prefer to have White shadow Tyreek Hill, the truth is it's too difficult for anyone to do. Kansas City moves him around so much, not just in terms of alignment but also with motion both before and after the snap. So, Divisional Round star Taron Johnson will need to bring his A-game, just like he did last week. White and Wallace will be plenty busy as well, because the Chiefs can rotate four supporting receivers through those two spots, each dangerous in their own way. Perhaps the most difficult job will belong to Hyde and Poyer, who have to both provide help over the top to take away deep balls to Hill, Hardman, and Watkins, and occasionally drop down to deal with the best tight end in the league. They'll have help from Matt Milano on the latter front, but they'll need to be involved, because you don't just want to show Mahomes and company one look all night long.
As difficult as the defensive backs' jobs will be on Sunday evening, the rushmen might have it even harder. They have the responsibility of not just getting to the quarterback and disrupting his rhythm, but keeping him contained in the pocket. Allen and Mahomes are two of the best improvisers in the league, equally dangerous throwing on the move from the perimeter as when stationary behind their line. At times, even more dangerous. Staying in rush lanes while still getting far enough upfield to make things messy in the pocket is a herculean task, and guys like Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, Trent Murphy, Vernon Butler, Justin Zimmer, Ed Oliver, Harrison Phillips, Frank Clark, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Alex Okafor, Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi, Tershawn Wharton, and Mike Pennel will be awfully busy. They're going to have to line up and rush again and again and again, and they're likely going to fail more often than not. Them's just the breaks.
This should be incredibly fun.
Prediction: Chiefs 37, Bills 33