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All-22 analysis: Mahomes-Kelce connection throttled Buffalo Bills in AFC Championship

The Bills never found an answer for Kelce, what gives?

What went wrong with the whole Travis Kelce situation? I don’t usually start with a GIF, but the Buffalo Bills don’t usually play in the AFC Championship so all bets are off. Here’s Kansas City’s first offensive snap.

The Bills look like they’re well prepared to defend Travis Kelce. Levi Wallace drives immediately and makes a tackle after a gain of only one yard. The short gain put the Kansas City Chiefs behind and they punted without gaining a first down. They never punted again and Travis Kelce was a big reason why. So how did the Bills go from well prepared to ill prepared? Sadly, we’re gonna take a look.


Play 1

This is actually their second play on the one successful Bills series but it sets the stage early on why Kelce is so hard to defend. He’s lined up similarly but moves across the formation to clog pursuit lanes. He’s not really blocking so much as occupying space, but it’s an effective method based on the play design.

Play 2

Matt Milano is often hailed as an excellent coverage linebacker with good sideline-to-sideline speed. And that’s true. He’s in the passing lane and shadowing Kelce pretty well most of the way to the boundary AND keeping Patrick Mahomes from scrambling by providing a downhill threat. Kelce cuts back and provides a super narrow window for Mahomes who has to throw on the run, across his body. How narrow is this opportunity? Look at how close Tre’Davious White is to breaking it up.

Play 3

Now I’m not suggesting the Bills played things well and were beaten by heroic efforts on every play. Their zone coverage left some real soft spots and here it just looks like they forgot Kelce is wearing an eligible number.

Play 4

But yes, overall the Bills’ defense wasn’t as bad as it might have looked. Kelce is running across the middle starting off in Matt Milano’s zone before he comes on screen. He comes into Tremaine Edmunds’s zone and will soon be in Taron Johnson territory. Mahomes and Kelce have this timed up perfectly to fit in the narrow window between Edmunds and T. Johnson.

Play 5

The Bills tried different adjustments including some high-risk play calls. You might remember this play as the one where Matt Milano got a free run at Mahomes. Milano was able to grab his right arm but Mahomes escaped and made a miracle throw while falling. Milano got a free run likely in part because the Bills put their linebackers at the edges to rush and had Darryl Johnson and A.J. Epenesa drop back into the zones usually occupied by the linebackers. Had they gone with a traditional front, it’s likely someone would have been told to pick up D. Johnson on that side.

Theoretical aside, Milano did get a free shot and it nearly paid off. Kelce sees the play is in trouble and while D. Johnson is initially in good position, he’ll need to “out-clever” Travis Kelce. That did not occur. That’s not meant to question D. Johnson, this is a tough spot for whoever would have been in that zone.

Play 6

In the second half the Bills tried a little bit of man coverage on Kelce. Milano is a good coverage linebacker but even many corners would struggle to maintain coverage consistently. Speaking of which, Kansas City responded by putting Kelce out wide as if he were a receiver. This kept him in man coverage, a plus for the Bills—but against smaller players who were out muscled. A plus for Kansas City.


Summary

Some of the damage was self-inflicted. The Bills used a lot of zone coverage, which left soft spots that the Mahomes/Kelce connection was able to find. The “eyes forward” approach didn’t help in every case either as Kelce masterfully used this to his advantage when he got behind the defender. Even when a solid play was called, Kelce was able to find spots that just don’t work for most QB/TE pairings, creating some miracle-type plays. Put simply, a tight end who is a legitimate threat as a wide receiver, blocker, and everything in between is hard to defend.