This is a big regular-season matchup
The Buffalo Bills lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game last season. We all know this. What was a great season came to a crashing halt that night in January, as the Bills were thoroughly dominated by a more physical Kansas City squad.
For the last nine months, the Bills have talked about how that loss fueled them. Their players and coaches have talked about how disappointing it was to lose that way at that stage in the game. We all know the picture of Stefon Diggs, crestfallen, watching the Chiefs celebrate a victory.
Given that the length of time between now and then essentially spans a pregnancy, I don’t feel strange paraphrasing former Bills general manager Buddy Nix: Now is the time for the Bills to stop talking about the labor pains. Now is the time for Buffalo to show us the baby.
If the Bills are going to walk out of Arrowhead Stadium with a 4-1 record and what amounts to a three-game lead over the Chiefs in the race for the AFC’s top seed in the playoffs, they’ll need big performances from their big players. Here are the players we think are the keys to victory this week.
QB Josh Allen
Let’s face it: Allen was bad in both games against Kansas City last year. He was tight. He wasn’t accurate. He was harried thanks to the Chiefs’ pass rush. Allen had three games where he completed less than 60 percent of his passes in 2020. Two of them were against the Chiefs. He had five games where he averaged less than six yards per attempt. Two of them were against the Chiefs. He completed just 42-of-75 passes in two games against Kansas City, totaling 409 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions. In the AFC Championship Game, he took four sacks, as well. The first key, and the most obvious one, in a Buffalo victory is Allen playing like he’s capable. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll needs to manage his signal-caller’s nerves by giving him some easy rhythm throws early. Look for some read-option looks where he can hit either Emmanuel Sanders on a slant or Dawson Knox in the flat to start Josh towards a big day.
WR Emmanuel Sanders
Speaking of Sanders, I feel like the Bills signed him almost specifically for a game like this. A team might be able to bracket both Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley, and the Chiefs did just that last year. However, someone as shifty and smart as Sanders makes the defense’s job infinitely more difficult. While John Brown was an excellent target here, he isn’t as adept at slipping through both man and zone coverage like Sanders. The veteran wideout is currently WR3 in terms of targets (26) and catches (16), but I think that the Chiefs are going to make Allen hit his newest weapon over Beasley and Diggs. Sanders will need to respond with a big game.
T Spencer Brown
The rookie started last week, and he was an absolute monster against the Houston Texans. Chances are good that he’ll be the right tackle again, and he’ll probably see a healthy dose of Frank Clark across from him. Starting a game in the friendly confines of Highmark Stadium against a bad Texans team is distinctly different from starting in the raucous atmosphere of Arrowhead Stadium against a Kansas City squad that many think will advance to its third straight Super Bowl. Using Knox to help out before he heads into the flat could keep Brown from being overexposed this week. If the rookie plays, he’ll have a huge test.
LB Tremaine Edmunds
I could go with the entire pass rush, as the key to beating Kansas City lies with disrupting Patrick Mahomes, so we’re going to skip that and go straight to the next level of the defense. Especially if Matt Milano is out, an increasing responsibility will fall on Edmunds to limit All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce. Last year, Kelce shredded Buffalo in both matchups. He caught 18 passes for 183 yards and four touchdowns in the two games. Yikes. Edmunds will need to be sound in his assignments, as he’ll probably have some split duty between attacking Clyde Edwards-Helaire, spying Mahomes, and covering Kelce.
CB Taron Johnson
Last year, Buffalo tried to use Taron Johnson as the man-to-man answer against Tyreek Hill in the playoffs. That strategy did not work, as Hill shredded Johnson in the second half. With Johnson coming off a groin injury (save the jokes, y’all!), Kansas City will certainly test the nickel corner to see how he feels. If Johnson plays, and he’s trending in the direction to do so, he’ll need to bring his A-game, as Buffalo’s secondary is perilously thin without him.