Can Josh Allen be contained by Chiefs defense? That may be the key to divisional showdown
The bulk of the focus for Sunday night’s AFC divisional round showdown between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs will be pointed at the dreamy quarterback matchup featuring Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes.
They are two of the NFL’s greatest players and both played absurdly great games in their respective wild-card victories when they combined to throw for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I think that’s the nature of the business,” Allen said. “We know in this league, the quarterbacks get a lot of the praise and they get a lot of the hate, downfall and all that stuff, too. And I think it just kind of comes with this position that we play.”
However, as important as both quarterbacks will be in this game, each team’s defense is going to have a say in the outcome.
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We all know how excellent the Bills have been this season as they pulled the rare feat of leading the NFL in both fewest points and fewest yards allowed. And for good measure, they were also No. 1 in passing yards, yards per play, and third-down conversion rate, and were tied for third in takeaways.
Mahomes certainly knows what he’s up against. “They have a good defensive coordinator, they have a good defensive head coach, they have good players over there.”
However, the unit that may actually hold the key to the outcome is Kansas City’s defense which has made a startling turnaround since last the Bills saw it.
When Buffalo showed up for the Week 5 game on Oct. 10, the Chiefs were in dire straits. Their defense had gotten lit up in the first four weeks and ranked 31st in both points allowed per game (31.3) and yards allowed (437.8). Those rankings only worsened after the Bills whipped them 38-20 as they rolled up 436 yards including 315 through the air from Allen.
“Obviously, it bothered me,” said safety Tyrann Mathieu when he was asked what it was like hearing that the Chiefs had the worst defense in the league. “I think we kind of knew all along who we were and what we were capable of. It was all a matter of executing and taking the field with the right attitude, and so the last couple months, we’ve been able to do that and I think people have really been able to see who we are and then what kind of team we are.”
The Chiefs continued to sputter thereafter and when they lost 27-3 at Tennessee, they were 3-4 and in last place in the AFC West, and it was largely due to the defense.
However, right there is the demarcation line when everything began to change and since Week 8 the Chiefs are like a new team. In winning 10 of their last 11 - which won them the AFC West and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs - they have allowed an average of just 16.5 points per game and have forced 25 turnovers.
For context, across the entire season, the Bills’ No. 1 defense allowed 17 points per game so yes, the Chiefs have been very good and will look quite different to Buffalo than they did 3 ½ months ago.
“They’re throwing so many looks at the opposing quarterbacks right now,” said Allen. “Bringing pressures from every side imaginable. They got guys that are playing really well. Obviously (DT Chris Jones) moved back inside and when he wants to go he can go against anybody and he’s one of the better players in the league. Outside they’ve got a couple guys that get after the quarterback. Some smart savvy guys in the secondary that are playing really good football together right now.”
Looking back at Week 5, the Chiefs played the game without Jones and cornerback Charvarius Ward who were injured, and tackle Frank Clark was hobbled by a hamstring injury.
Also, they had not yet traded for edge rusher Melvin Ingram who came from the Steelers in early November and has been an impact player, not so much with his own numbers, but because his presence has opened things up for others, particularly Jones.
Lastly, the Chiefs moved Juan Thornhill into the starting lineup at free safety in place of Daniel Sorensen who had become a liability as Bills fans know, having seen Allen attack him with verve.
“I think the neat part about this game that’s coming up here is both teams are relatively healthy,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “At this time of year, that’s a great thing. It should lead to a heck of a game. I know the guys that didn’t play (in the first game) look forward to the challenge of playing. You love this kind of competition and these kinds of games.”
Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has long been one of the best in the league, and now that he has a full complement of players, the Bills know his plan Sunday will be diverse and aggressive.
“Yeah, it’ll be a tremendous challenge,” Bills center Mitch Morse said. “I thought they played with an intensity that was admirable last game, too. But understanding that they have some key pieces back in the lineup, added a few pieces like Ingram who’s a phenomenal player who can really change the game, and guys who might have been a little bit injured are now healthy.
“You can just tell with the speed that they play, they have a fire about them so it’ll be a tremendous challenge for our offensive line and for our offense to execute and match that intensity, understanding that this game is going to have ebbs and flows. It’ll be fun.”
Mahomes will obviously have a tough task on his hand dealing with the Bills defense, but you know he’s going to find a way to put points on the board. How Allen maneuvers against the Chiefs defense, and his ability to go point for point with Mahomes, will probably determine who moves on to the AFC Championship Game.
“They’re playing at a different level, in my opinion, than when we played them the first time,” Allen said. “We know that and I think everybody else knows that. They’ve come on really strong at the end of the season, they’re one of the top groups in the league right now. The way they can mix up pressure and force turnovers is really making them go right now. It’s on the quarterback to make the right decisions and not put the ball in harm’s way and not give their offense an opportunity for a short field.”
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.