Let’s begin with the obvious. If quarterback Patrick Mahomes plays on Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs’ chances of beating the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game go up measurably. And early indications are that Mahomes is successfully progressing through the NFL concussion protocol, including already practicing in a limited capacity as of Wednesday.
That’s good for Mahomes and NFL fans, as we should all want to see the best players on the field during the playoffs.
But here’s the thing that all of this “will he or won’t he play” discussion about Mahomes seems to be overshadowing: The Bills have the skill, the hunger and the momentum to beat the Chiefs whether or not Mahomes is playing.
To be clear, that is not meant to take anything away from the Chiefs. They are a potent offensive machine, with Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce each ranking among the best in the NFL at their positions. And two of Mahomes’ other offensive weapons who were injured during last week’s game against the Browns—running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and receiver Sammy Watkins (a former Bill)—are beginning to practice and look likely to play this Sunday. The Chiefs also have the swagger of a reigning Super Bowl champion and the gutsy coaching of Andy Reid.
So, this prediction is not about what the Chiefs lack as much as it is about what the current version of the Bills will bring into this game. Here are the reasons why I think the Bills will prevail.
The Bills offense is surprisingly comparable to that of the Chiefs
As good as the Chiefs have been on offense this year, the Bills have been right there with them. The Chiefs were best in the NFL during the regular season in total yards (6,653). Who was second best? The Bills at 6,343. Ranked by total points scored during the season, Buffalo was again second best in the NFL at 512 points (behind only the Green Bay Packers). And four places better than the Chiefs, who ranked sixth at 486 points. How about total touchdowns? The Bills were third best in the NFL at 60, again besting the Chiefs, who were in sixth place with 57.
When it comes to quarterbacks, most seem convinced that Mahomes is in a league of his own. For the season, he had a superb quarterback rating of 108.2. How about the Bills’ Josh Allen? He was nearly identical at 107.2 and had a better completion percentage on the season. And from the standpoint of QBR, Allen finished off the regular season with much stronger performances. Allen’s QBR for the last three regular season games were 122.3 (Dolphins), 138.7 (Patriots) and 114.5 (Broncos). By contrast, Mahomes was clearly trending downwards in his final three games at 79.5 (Falcons), 92.0 (Saints) and 91.9 (Dolphins). And, given Mahomes’ recent head and foot injuries, which quarterback is likely to be the more effective scrambler and rushing threat this week?
The Bills also have the league’s most productive receiver this season in Stephon Diggs, plus other reliable receiving talent in Cole Beasley (who is effective even while nursing his knee) and John Brown. Also, unlike the 2020 regular season game between the Bills and the Chiefs, Buffalo will have John Feliciano back on the offensive line, as well as Dawson Knox, which gives Allen a more plausible passing option from the tight end position (recall that it was Knox who caught a critical touchdown in the playoff win against the Colts).
The Bills have the better defense, and it’s peaking
First, the Chiefs are not a great defensive team. They are in the bottom half of teams at stopping the run, which may induce the Bills to run more than they did last week against the Ravens. It is also notable that the Chiefs cornerbacks are a somewhat average group, which bodes well for the ability of Diggs, Beasley and Brown to create separation.
But the real story here is about the Bills and how much better their defense has gotten as the season has progressed. Take a look at four key defensive stats below, and how the Bills fared during the first eight games of the season compared to the last eight games. The improvement is significant, and may be partially related to linebacker Matt Milano coming back from injury during the last five games of the season. A now-healthy Milano, who is viewed as a key on-field leader, will be critical this week, as he will often draw the duty of covering Kelsey.
If any more evidence is needed about the Bills’ defensive surge, their performance last week against the Ravens should seal the case. The Bills were facing an explosive offense and a dynamic quarterback in Lamar Jackson, and many experts picked the Ravens to run all over the Bills. Instead, the Bills defense kept the Ravens to 3 points, and contributed with a defensive touchdown. For some context, it was the first time since 2009 that any team had been kept to 3 points or less in a Divisional Round playoff game. The Bills defense is playing its best at the best possible time.
The intangibles favor the Bills
The Bills like being underestimated. They like being the underdogs. They are playing with a hunger and drive that can only be summoned by those that need to prove something—to themselves and to the nation.
That gathering drive can be seen in their improving performances. They have won eight games in a row. Their last three regular-season games were complete blowouts, beating the Broncos (48-19), the Patriots (38-9) and the Dolphins (56-26). They did stumble against the Colts in their wild card game, allowing that game to get too close. But the sudden doubts about the Bills only caused them to step up, with an unexpected domination of the Ravens.
Now the Bills go to Kansas City. They are again being underestimated, as though their best hope is to wish for an unhealthy Mahomes.
But barring something unexpected, it will likely be the Bills who once again emerge victorious. It is their moment.
Final score prediction: Bills 34 – Chiefs 28.
Alex Zapesochny is Rochester Beacon publisher.