For the third time in the last four seasons, the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs will meet in the NFL Playoffs. For the first time since the 1993 AFC Championship Game, however, that meeting will take place with the Bills as the home team. After losing the 2020 AFC Championship Game and the 2021 AFC Divisional Round contest, Buffalo is looking to exact some revenge on their Midwestern foes.
Typically, we go with five players to watch, but with a big game this week, we’re breaking free of that mold. I’ve also decided to omit the quarterbacks from the article discussion this week, because let’s face it: everyone knows that Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes are important to the outcome of the game. Rather than repeating the obvious, we’re going to treat that as a given.
And with that out of the way, here are our six Kansas City Chiefs to watch during this week’s Divisional Round matchup.
RB Isiah Pacheco
In my eyes, Pacheco is the single most important player on Kansas City’s offense to contain. The Bills have shown in the past that they can contain Kansas City’s passing attack. What makes that attack exponentially harder to stop, though, is if the Chiefs can pick up big chunks of yardage on the ground whenever they please. In the first meeting, Pacheco did not play. That was a huge boost to the Bills, who were coming off their bye and had been reeling in their run defense. With Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon spearheading the ground game, the Chiefs’ backs rushed 15 times for just 58 yards.
Pacheco is a violent runner, and with a Bills linebacker group that’s full of question marks thanks to injuries, he has to be viewing this week like a bull entering the ring against a bruised matador. The defensive tackles will need to be on point this week, and if they can win at the line, Buffalo’s linebackers will have a chance to go downhill and stop Pacheco before he starts his rampage. If he’s running it at five yards per carry, the Bills are in for a long day at the office.
WR Rashee Rice
The rookie has been dynamite of late, as his second half of the season showed a budding star for the Chiefs. In Kansas City’s first ten games, Rice had a modest 36 grabs for 420 yards and four touchdowns. That was good for a pace of 61/714/7 over a 17-game season. Well, in the time since then, he’s taken off, totaling 51 catches for 648 yards and four more scores in the seven games — including last weekend’s Wild Card win over the Miami Dolphins — since that initial ten-game run. Extrapolated over a 17-game season, that kind of run is All-Pro caliber.
Rice had seven catches for 72 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting between these two clubs, and with Buffalo dealing with some injuries at corner, there’s a good chance he ends up running against a reserve like Dane Jackson or Kaiir Elam. That’s a matchup the Chiefs will take, though I’d actually bet that a Rice vs. Elam contest would be more even than some people would like to admit. Either way, Rice is a great young wideout who needs to be accounted for on each snap.
TE Travis Kelce
I can’t remove all of the obvious ones, right? Taylor Swift’s boyfriend has been a thorn in the Bills’ side for years now, and making sure that he doesn’t hit them with a back-breaking big play at an inopportune time is paramount to success this weekend.
Wide receiver Kadarius Toney may not be on the field to bail Buffalo out this time around, and with Buffalo’s banged-up linebackers, head coach Sean McDermott is going to have some difficult choices to make: Does he go with more dime looks to put safety Jordan Poyer in the box against Kelce, thereby lightening the box for Pacheco to run? Or does he stay with a linebacker group that may include a rookie (Dorian Williams), a player on one good leg (Terrel Bernard), a player with one good arm (Tyrel Dodson), or a player who was set to make like many New Yorkers and head to Florida for the winter just a week ago (A.J. Klein)?
It’s a pick-your-poison scenario that every team faces against the Chiefs, and it’s become more difficult to focus solely on Kelce thanks to Rice’s emergence in the second half of the season.
George Karlaftis III
Chris Jones is a given. However, Kansas City’s second-year edge rusher had a breakout campaign this season, posting 10.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits to finish tied with Jones and right behind him, respectively, on Kansas City’s roster in those categories. If Buffalo focuses too much on the interior pass rush, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is a master at bringing different blitzes from different places, and freeing someone up like Karlaftis could cause plenty of issues for the Bills’ front.
Karlaftis had a sack in the first meeting, and even though Buffalo’s offensive line has held its own in the last few weeks, teams seem to be content to blitz Josh Allen and try to force him into mistakes. Given that knowledge combined with Kansas City’s success when blitzing this season, it’s safe to expect a healthy dose of pressure this Sunday.
LB Nick Bolton
Between Bolton and Willie Gay Jr., the Chiefs have two of the better mirror/spy linebackers to counter a quarterback with Josh Allen’s strength and speed. Bolton is a tackling machine, as he racked up 60 stops in just eight games this season. He’s also a solid zone defender in the middle of the field, and that comes in handy with a team like the Bills, who have two excellent tight ends in Dawson Knox and Dalton Kincaid.
Running concepts that will put Bolton in jeopardy in the passing game will help not only to free those receivers up in the middle for chunk plays, but it could also make him hesitate in reading his keys when trying to spy Allen. A moment’s hesitation is all the Bills need. Giving him some eye candy in the form of pre-snap motion, some misdirection in the run game, and some level or mesh concepts in the passing game, will make his job much more difficult. That’s good for Buffalo.
CB L’Jarius Sneed
Kansas City’s top corner had Buffalo’s top wideout, Stefon Diggs, locked down in the first meeting. Even though Diggs saw a team-high 11 targets, he caught just four passes for 24 yards on the day. Interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady has to design some easy looks for Diggs, and he has to move him around the formation in order to confuse Kansas City’s coverage concepts.
While Sneed might not travel with Diggs all night long, when the chips are down, we can assume that he’ll be the one on Diggs. In the first meeting, Allen was just 2-of-7 for four yards when Sneed was the closest defender in coverage. That’s clearly elite-level stuff. Buffalo has to have an answer to break their best wide receiver free on Sunday.