The Kansas City Chiefs are hosting their
second third consecutive AFC Championship Game. Last year, they defeated the Tennessee Titans, who had knocked off the No. 1-seeded Baltimore Ravens, and the Chiefs went on to win the second Super Bowl title in their franchise history.
This time around, the No. 1-seeded Chiefs host the No. 2-seeded Buffalo Bills in the matchup that everyone wanted to see in the AFC. This is the sixth time the Chiefs will play in a game for the right to play in a Super Bowl, and oddly enough, it’s the third time that they’ve played the Bills. This is Buffalo’s seventh such game.
The Chiefs are the second-to-last mountain for the Bills to climb. If Buffalo is going to reach its first Super Bowl since the last time they beat the Chiefs in an AFC Championship Game, they’ll need to shut down Kansas City’s stars.
Here are the five players we’ll be watching this week.
QB Patrick Mahomes
In what is news to absolutely no one, Mahomes is dealing with some injuries after last week’s win over the Cleveland Browns. Mahomes has an injured toe on his left foot, but he ultimately left the game and was put into concussion protocol after an awkward tackle by Browns linebacker Mack Wilson. We expect Mahomes to play, as he’s been practicing this week while moving through the protocol, though there won’t be any official word on his status until after this article publishes. At any rate, the Bills will need to see just how mobile Mahomes is. The ball seems to be sailing on him a bit when he throws left, as it’s clear that he can’t quite set his feet the way he wants. Blitzing the Chiefs isn’t something that teams generally do, but I’d like to see Buffalo come out and turn up the heat early, if only to show that they’re willing to do it. Speeding up Mahomes’s decision-making when he’s already hurting could turn some of those amazing plays he makes into some head-scratching mistakes. And if the Chiefs hit on a big play? Well, that’s what they always do anyway. Josh Allen and company are going to have to score to win this one, so going in and hitting Mahomes early and often is my preferred play.
RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire
The rookie runner ran for 803 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season. The good news is that none of those touchdowns came against Buffalo. The bad news is that 20 percent of his season total for rushing yards came in Kansas City’s 26-17 win over the Bills in Orchard Park. Part of that was by design, as the Bills gave the Chiefs some light boxes and dared them to run in order to limit Mahomes...but let’s be real: No one wants to be gashed on the ground to the tune of six yards per carry. The design was to give them run looks and then go stop the run, and the Bills failed miserably at the latter, more important part of the plan. They didn’t have Matt Milano for that game, however, and Tremaine Edmunds was still dealing with a lingering shoulder injury. I expect that the Bills will invite the run in similar fashion at points this week, but the results will be much different than they were in October.
WR Tyreek Hill
The explosive wideout is a miserable mark for any corner, and he can outrun essentially anyone in the league. Hill caught 87 passes for 1,276 yards and a whopping 15 touchdowns, adding 123 yards and two touchdowns on 13 rushing attempts. Hill is a dynamic force who can score from anywhere on the field with the ball in his hands, and if I were the Bills, I’d look to make sure that there’s only one way he can do damage, and that’s by catching a deep ball. I know that sounds crazy, but think about it—what happens when teams sit and play off-coverage against Stefon Diggs all night long? Josh Allen lets him eat up ten to 15 yards at a clip. Buffalo’s secondary boasts some elite talent in Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer. Leaving White one-on-one with Hill and positioning one of the safeties over the top for help isn’t a bad strategy. I’ve seen the idea floated that Buffalo should play more man than normal, and I agree here. Let White play Hill physically and have Hyde over the top to protect the house.
TE Travis Kelce
Four offensive players isn’t something I normally do, and it’s not a slight to the Chiefs’ defense—their stop unit finished tenth in points against and 16th in yards against—but more a compliment to their dynamic offense. Kelce did whatever he wanted whenever he wanted in the last meeting, as he caught five passes for 65 yards and two touchdowns. Compared to the three catches for 20 yards that Hill had, Kelce is probably the bigger threat to the Bills this week. A healthy Milano and Edmunds should help, as Tremaine has played especially well in the playoffs. He was outstanding against Mark Andrews last week, but the Indianapolis Colts found plenty of success going to their tight ends in the Wild Card Round. With apologies to Trey Burton, Mo Allie-Cox, and Jack Doyle, those guys aren’t even on the same planet as Kelce, who was named All-Pro for the third time this year.
DT Chris Jones
Tyrann Matthieu. Daniel Sorensen. Frank Clark. This is a talented defensive group. The one guy that scares me the most is Jones, given Buffalo’s struggles at times this year with interior pass rushers. Ike Boettger was tested against Cam Heyward, and he was much better in the second half than he was in the first half. He’s seen some very strong players since, and the Bills have done really well as a whole in protecting Josh Allen during the postseason. Allen has thrown 72 passes and he’s only been sacked four times. Continuing to neutralize the rush up the middle is paramount to the continued success of the passing game, but doubling Jones might also lead to some more success in the running game. If Buffalo can rip off some solid runs and keep ahead of the sticks, they can also keep Kansas City’s offense off the field for longer chunks of time, which is an added bonus. Limiting Jones is of tremendous importance.