Written by John Sparaco
Ever since the season kicked off way back in September, the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs have felt destined to inevitably collide in the AFC Championship game. Both clearly the classes of the AFC this season, only one will earn the right to represent the conference in Super Bowl LV on February 7th. This will not be the first time these teams met this season, as the two went head-to-head back in Week 6. The game was a strange, rain-filled, early evening match that was a clear misrepresentation of both teams after being rescheduled from Thursday Night to Monday Evening as a result of the whole Titans fiasco. Neither Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes had their best showing, but it was Mahomes and the Chiefs that left Orchard Park with a 26-17 win that time around. Since then, the Bills have won 11 of their last 12 games, the one loss resulting from a miraculous hail mary. Last time they met, the Chiefs had run all over the Bills defense with their rushing attack led by rookie sensation RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but even that part of the Bills team has improved since. Leading up to last week’s Divisional Playoff game against the Ravens, most of the “experts” on TV doubted the Bills, claiming that they would not be able to slow down the dynamic rushing trio of Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, and Gus Edwards. Not only did the Bills run defense slow them down, they shut them down. The red hot Ravens ran straight into a brick wall, struggling to average 4 yards per carry as they were only able to muster up 3 points on the night. During their last matchup, Buffalo utilized a game plan that essentially forced KC to beat them with the run, not the arm of Patrick Mahomes. The only issue? Buffalo’s defense was missing Vernon Butler, Harrison Phillips, and Matt Milano. Without the massive frames of Butler and Phillips to clog up the middle of the defensive line, there was a gaping hole in the defense. Additionally, Matt Milano’s absence left the Bills with no hope of slowing down superstar TE Travis Kelce. Buffalo’s defense is much better with him on the field. In fact, the Bills are 15-0 this season when Milano plays and 0-3 without him. Now, these are not excuses as the Chiefs were clearly the better team in Week 6. The point is, this Bills defense is a much different animal than the one KC saw in October, so this game could look a lot different now with a trip to Tampa up for grabs.
1. Josh Allen vs. Patrick Mahomes
For nearly two decades, fans sat back and watched the great rivalry of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning unfold as the two met in the AFC Championship year after year. Two masterminds of the game with similar playstyles, each matchup became more memorable than the last. Now in 2021, the new generation of great quarterbacks has arrived. Allen vs. Mahomes has the potential to be the next Brady vs. Manning, as this matchup could very well repeat itself for years to come. The two exciting gunslingers are blessed with traits mirrored only by each other, paving the way for a night filled with jaw dropping throws and extended plays outside the pocket. Despite being in concussion protocol and dealing with a foot injury, Mahomes has been cleared and will be ready to go on Sunday. Mahomes has been here before, now appearing in his third straight AFC title game after leading his team to a Lombardi trophy last year. This stage is nothing new for him, but for Josh Allen and the Bills, this is uncharted territory. So, how will Allen handle the second biggest stage in football? Throughout Josh Allen’s career dating back to high school, he has always been told that he is never going to be good enough to take the next step, that he would never be great. Each time, Allen has proven them wrong. The same exact story goes for the rest of this Bills team. They have been doubted every step of the way, yet they keep on winning no matter how big the moment appeared to be. However, to be the best, Josh Allen will have to beat the best. This is the next step for Josh Allen to take, and winning against Mahomes in their first AFC Championship matchup would send quite the message.
2. Matt Milano vs. Travis Kelce
As previously mentioned, Matt Milano did not appear in the last matchup between these two teams. That left a combination of an injured Tremaine Edmunds and a struggling (at the time) A.J. Klein to cover the receiving threat, and as a result, Kelce burned them. While the Bills did an excellent job preventing Tyreek Hill from taking the top off the defense, the middle of the field was completely exposed. Kelce recorded 5 receptions for 65 yards and a TD, making his presence felt all game long. Kelce has been Mahomes’ favorite target for the last 3 years, accumulating numbers that not only lead tight ends, but many top receivers as well. He finished the regular season with 1,416 yards and 11 TD’s, breaking George Kittle’s record for most yards by a TE in a single season. Shutting down Kelce completely is nearly impossible, but if there is anyone capable of limiting his effectiveness, it is Matt Milano. Milano transitioned from safety to linebacker in college, but his coverage instincts never faded away. Since entering the league in 2017, Milano has consistently been graded as one of the best coverage linebackers in all of football. Paired with a now healthy Tremaine Edmunds, these two linebackers have the speed and instincts necessary to go toe-to-toe with the best offenses in the league.
3. Cole Beasley vs. L’Jarius Sneed
One of the biggest keys to winning this game will be keeping the offense on the field, and to do that, the Bills need to convert on third down. Typically, Josh Allen relies on the hands of his reliable pass catchers Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley to move the chains, but with Beasley playing through an injury, it was much more difficult last week. The Baltimore Ravens defense completely shut down Beasley, holding him without a catch for the first time all season. As a result, the Bills, who were the fourth most efficient team on third downs this season, converted on only 4 of their 13 third down attempts last week. The Bills struggles on third down last week are directly related to Beasley’s struggles against Baltimore’s talented secondary. When healthy, Cole Beasley has been the best slot receiver in the NFL this season, even earning second team All-Pro honors. The Bills will need Beasley at his best this Sunday, and luckily for them, it appears that he has been cleared from the injury report as of Friday afternoon. On the other side, KC also returns a player that did not appear in the first matchup between these two teams. Rookie CB L’Jarius Sneed was injured between Weeks 4-10, but has since emerged as one of the gems of this year’s rookie class. Taken in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Sneed has immediately made an impact as a key contributor for the Chiefs defense. Sneed grabbed 3 interceptions in 9 regular season games, showcasing that he has big time playmaking ability already. Sneed did an excellent job limiting Jarvis Landry’s production last Sunday, as Landry only gained 20 yards on his 7 receptions, although he did record a touchdown. It was a team effort to limit Cleveland’s top wideout as Mathieu, Breeland, and Ward all pitched in to slow him down, but Sneed’s impact certainly stands out. The Chiefs will look to repeat their success against the Bills, but it will not be easy against Buffalo’s dangerous arsenal of wideouts paired with a QB that can make plays all over the field.
Starting at 6:40 PM EST on Sunday, the Buffalo Bills can no longer fly under the radar like they used to. The Bills have made it this far because they are one of the four best teams in the NFL, and now get another chance to prove that they are the best in the AFC. Last weekend, Taron Johnson became a Bills legend for making a franchise altering play, a 101-yard pick six to pull away in the Divisional Round. In games of this magnitude, every play is amplified. Everyone will remember who made the biggest play in the biggest moments, and an extra serving of greatness is right there on the table for the Bills taking this weekend. No one knows for sure who will step up just yet, but whoever rises to the occasion will certainly be remembered forever. Why not the Buffalo Bills? This Bills team is humble, starving, but most importantly, not satisfied. As Good Morning Football Host Kyle Brandt stated, “Mafia, Mount Up”, because these opportunities do not come around every day.