It was going to be, maybe, THE game of the Thursday night schedule. The undefeated Bills hosting the undefeated Chiefs in primetime from Orchard Park.
Then, COVID and the “Any Given Sunday” nature of the NFL got in the way.
Buffalo was supposed to play Tennessee the week before, but a Titans COVID outbreak pushed the game to Tuesday. It meant the Chiefs game had to be delayed from Thursday to the following Monday night at 5pm.
The Bills spent the whole week practicing for a Sunday game in Tennessee, not knowing when or if it would be played. The delay seemed to take a toll. The 42-16 loss in Nashville was, easily, Buffalo’s worst performance of the year.
Kansas City had mostly cruised to four wins and was expected to land a fifth victory at home against Las Vegas, but the Raiders had other ideas. Big play after big play carried Vegas to a 40-32 stunner over the Chiefs.
With the Bills still trying to plot their way through a rearranged COVID schedule and the Chiefs trying to understand how they got slapped down by a much-less-than-elite Raiders squad, the two future AFC Championship opponents met on a rainy Monday night in Buffalo.
The story of the game was the Bills defense or, more appropriately, the lack thereof against the Chiefs run game. Kansas City rushed for 245 yards, including 161 by rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Buffalo played their linebackers a yard or two further from the line of scrimmage then usual much of the game. Often, the first step was backwards to cover the pass. It allowed oodles of space behind the Bills defensive line.
It was Buffalo’s intention to let the Chiefs run the ball. The team hinted at the gameplan after the game. Micah Hyde and Sean McDermott told media that preventing big plays by Patrick Mahomes was the priority.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier confirmed the game plan on Monday.
“We went into it saying, ‘ok, they’re not going to beat us over the top’. They were hitting so many explosives (big plays). (We) just weren’t going to give up the explosive pass and that’s the way we played,” Frazier said. “We were gonna dare them to stay with the run game and, lo and behold, they stayed with it and had a lot of success running the football.”
The Bills also blew a couple of big chances to stay with the Chiefs midway through the game. Josh Norman recovered a fumble by Travis Kelce near midfield and a quick throw from Josh Allen to Stefon Diggs set Tyler Bass up for a 52 yard field goal try that would have tied the game at 13 right before the half. He missed it badly wide right.
After getting a stop on the Chiefs to open the second half, Buffalo had another chance to tie or take the lead. This time, Allen missed a wide open Cole Beasley to convert a third and six from the Buffalo 30 yard line and the Bills had to punt.
From there, the Chiefs went on an eight minute, 82 yard drive that culminated in a 13 yard Darrell Williams touchdown run on 4th and 1. Save the near Edwards-Helaire fumble in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs held Buffalo at arm’s length from there.
Buffalo’s lack of offense was an underdiscussed part of this loss. This game was Allen’s worst when it came to passing yards and completion percentage. It was arguably his worst game overall, via the eye test. He missed on seven of his first nine passes–a couple were relatively simple throws–and never got the offense rolling until the Chiefs were up two scores.
The weather was a factor, but not a game changer. Mahomes, for his part, completed 21 of 26 throws for 225 yards and hit two key passes late without issue to seal the win. The Bills were missing a few offensive pieces in October that could make a huge difference in January.
The Bills guards for the first Chiefs meeting were Brian Winters and Cody Ford. Each had ugly games against Kansas City and neither will start in the AFC Championship. Winters went back to the bench when Jon Feliciano returned from injury and Ford is out for the season with a knee injury. Feliciano and Ike Boettger have been a clear upgrade from the guard combo in that first Chiefs game.
Buffalo will also have Dawson Knox at their disposal for the Chiefs rematch. He has not blossomed into the weapon at tight end the Bills hoped, but he has enough dual blocking-receiving skills to present the Chiefs another concern. Knox missed the first KC game with a calf injury and Tyler Kroft was the top tight end.
The Chiefs do have an offensive weapon of their own that missed the win in Buffalo and will play this weekend. It’s a name Bills fans know all too well: Sammy Watkins. The former Buffalo first round pick did not play in the Chiefs playoff opener against Cleveland either, but is expected healthy for the AFC Championship.
Edwards-Helaire is another dangerous offensive piece hoping to return after being out for the divisional round. He’s trending toward being available, but don’t expect the Bills to allow him free reign at the line of scrimmage like they did in October.
“We learned a lot from that ballgame and, hopefully, some lessons that will help us going forward,” Frazier said this week. “We’ll have to find a balance and do a better job against the run than we did in that first encounter.”
It’s very likely the Bills continue to attack passing teams like they have the last half of the season. The defense that faced the Chiefs in October was still searching for an identity. Not anymore. The Buffalo defense has known who they are and should be for weeks. They force turnovers and create havoc. Since the Chiefs game, only three teams have topped 25 points against the Bills. Two were via meaningless points in garbage time (Seahawks, Dolphins) and the other was courtesy a Hail Mary (Cardinals).
Buffalo is also the team playing the more dominant football of late. Not only have the Bills won their last eight games, but seven of them have come by ten points or more. The Chiefs don’t have a ten point win since Election Day.
The “big” game of the regular season didn’t play out the way the Bills hoped. However, there are many reasons to believe the big game of the AFC postseason will end differently.