It’s been 27 years since the Buffalo Bills have played in a game like this … one that puts them a win away from the Super Bowl.
But here they are, a red-hot 15-3 team that has won 11 of its last 12 games, the last eight in a row, about to face the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs (15-2) Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium (6:40, CBS-TV, 95.7 FM, 100.1 FM, 550 AM) for the American Football Conference Championship.
The winner advances to Super Bowl LV two weeks from tomorrow at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.
KANSAS CITY is a 3-point favorite in a game that has multiple story lines.
The biggest one, of course, is the status of Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs All-Pro quarterback. He went out of last Sunday’s 22-17 divisional playoff win over Cleveland, midway in the third-quarter, and didn’t return.
He was diagnosed with a concussion and spent most of this week in the protocol. However, after the injury KC coach Andy Reid indicated it was a pinched nerve in the neck. It actually appears that, beside the mild concussion, Reid’s assessment was correct and that the nerve injury could affect Mahomes mobility.
All indications are that the reigning NFL MVP will play, if he didn’t, the job would fall to 13-year veteran Chad Henne who finished up that win over the Browns. If that happened, what would be the effect? The opening odds favored the Chiefs by four points but with an asterisk … if Henne started they would switch to the Bills by 2 ½. In other words, Mahomes makes nearly a touchdown difference.
THEN, THERE’S the weather.
The forecast has been all over the place, but as we get closer to game time, the most persistent prognostication is temperatures in the mid 30s with light winds and a 50 percent chance of rain.
Finally, can Buffalo stop Kansas City’s running game?
When the two teams met on a rainy Monday night back in October at Bills Stadium, Reid deserted form — even though Mahomes threw a pair of TD passes — and ran Buffalo into submission.
In the Chiefs’ 26-17 victory, they rushed for 245 yards, the most surrendered by Buffalo in its last 30 games and, thanks to 46 rushes (over five per carry), KC dominated in yardage (466-206) and time of possession (38 minutes to 22).
Rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire went for a career-best 161 yards on 26 carries proving the vulnerability of Buffalo’s defensive tackles to the run … a problem most of the season.
THERE’S A thought that this will be a shootout with Buffalo second in NFL scoring at 30 points a game and Kansas City at 29. Meanwhile, the Chiefs, who had won 10 straight before losing the meaningless season finale to the Chargers, top the league in offensive yards (417 per game) with Buffalo second (387).
Both teams are in the middle of the NFL in rushing, but the Bills are still stung by what Kansas City did to them on the ground.
“We went into it saying, they’re not going to beat us over the top (passing),” Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier recalled of that Monday night loss. “They were hitting so many explosives (big plays), and they’re still doing it to teams. We just weren’t going to give up the explosive passes.
“We said, ‘We’re going to dare them to stay with the run game.’ Lo and behold, they stayed with it and had a lot of success running the football.”
Frazier added, “We learned a lot from that ballgame, hopefully some lessons that will help us going forward. We’ll have to find a balance and do a better job against the run than we did in the first encounter.”
Of course, Mahomes (42 touchdowns, 39 passing, 3 rushing) and Edwards-Helaire aren’t KC’s only weapons. The Chiefs also have the league’s best tight end in Travis Kelce and its top deep threat with Tyreek Hill, the two of them combining for 208 catches, 2,911 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Frazier admitted, “When I watch them, sometimes I think of the ‘Air Coryell’ days (late ’70s, early ’80s) where the Chargers with (QB) Dan Fouts were just lighting people up. It was hard to defend that offense when they were hitting their stride.
“When I’m watching the Chiefs, they have so many weapons, much like those Chargers did … in the backfield, tight end, wide receiver, probably a future Hall of Fame quarterback and they can score in a hurry.”
OF COURSE, even without a running game — rookie Zack Moss is out and Devin Singletary, after a solid first year, has been just another guy -— Buffalo has weapons of its own.
Quarterback Josh Allen, the single biggest reason for Buffalo’s dramatic improvement, has accounted for 50 touchdowns (40 passing, nine rushing, one receiving).
Meanwhile, wide receiver Stefon Diggs, the trade acquisition from Minnesota, now has 141 receptions for 1,769 yards and nine TDs, while slot wideout Cole Beasley has added 89 catches for 1,024 yards and four scores.
In addition, speedy John Brown has returned to the lineup and, at a perfect time, as rookie wide receiver Gabriel Davis (7 TDs among his 39 catches) is questionable with an ankle injury.
Still, the lack of balance without a dependable running game is a concern.
But Buffalo coach Sean McDermott, who served 12 seasons under Reid with the Eagles, doesn’t mind his team being seen as the underdog.
“I think (a chip on the shoulder) is human nature a little bit when people doubt you and say you can’t do things and you’re not good enough,” he said. “I’m glad our guys have that approach.”