The Game Matchups Preview series is dedicated to breaking down how the Buffalo Bills match up with their opponent in every game of the 2023 NFL season. This series will look at five key matchups; Bills Pass Offense vs. Opponent Pass Defense, Bills Rush Offense vs. Opponent Rush Defense, Bills Pass Defense vs. Opponent Pass Offense, Bills Rush Defense vs. Opponent Rush Offense, and Bills Special Teams vs. Opponent Special Teams. This entire analysis will conclude with three sections; “Why Buffalo Will Lose”, “Why Buffalo Will Win”, and a score prediction for the game.
Below I present 2023’s nineteenth edition of this analysis for the Bills’ AFC Divisional Round clash with the Kansas City Chiefs. Included is my “patented” 👏 scale which ranks the advantage in each matchup from 👏👏👏👏👏 (Massive Advantage) to 👏 (Minimal Advantage).
Bills Pass Offense vs. Chiefs Pass Defense
With injuries piling up, the only way the Bills can confidently hope to progress during this postseason is on the back of their quarterback. That hope was realized in the Wild Card Round with Josh Allen going 21/30 for 203 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions against the league’s sixth-ranked defense by DVOA, albeit sans T.J. Watt. This ultimately pushed Allen’s postseason touchdown-to-turnover ratio to a historically great 24:6. The Bills will require that exact pace from Allen for the remainder of this postseason if they hope to continue their season while also relying on their receiving options to not only catch the ball but to make plays after the catch. The reliance on hope continues on Sunday night, against their arch nemesis, the Kansas City Chiefs and their seventh-ranked defense (by DVOA) who will be coming to Orchard Park.
This is a defense that has talent to burn and a play-caller in Steve Spagnuolo who has the proven ability to put them where they need to be when they need to be there. In the secondary, that means aligning both L’Jarius Sneed (CB) and Trent McDuffie (CB) in advantageous positions which have led to them being one of the best corner duos in the NFL. On the season Sneed has given up a Passer Rating of just 56.2 whilst McDuffie has allowed just two touchdowns on the season. Behind them, they are currently rolling with the sixth-year veteran Justin Reid and the hard-hitting Mike Edwards who is filling in for the injured Bryan Cook. These four alone have the talent to keep Stefon Diggs, Khalil Shakir, and possibly Gabe Davis in check which should force the Bills to rely more heavily on their tight ends, Dalton Kincaid and Dawson Knox, and running backs, James Cook and Ty Johnson. Contending with them will be their Nickel, Jaylen Watson, as well as the linebacker of rotation of Nick Bolton, Willie Gay, Leo Chenal, and Drue Tranquill. The Chiefs have a clear advantage against the Bills wide receivers but with the mismatches the Bills can create with their running backs and tight ends, there is no reason Buffalo can’t win this matchup.
Where the game can flip one way or another is in the trenches, where each team has the talent to dominate their opponent. On Kansas City’s side, George Karlaftis (DE) and Chris Jones (DT) each finished with 10.5 sacks demonstrating the Chiefs’ ability to win on both the outside and inside. Add to that Charles Omenihu’s 7.0 sacks and Michael Danna’s 6.5 off the edge and the Chiefs will challenge the Bills’ impressive offensive line. That’s a line that has participated in keeping Allen cleaner in 2023 than he has been at any point in his entire career. His 17.9% pressure rate is the second lowest of his career whilst his 4.0% sack rate was the lowest amongst qualifying quarterbacks. The Chiefs have a proven ability to get after opposing quarterbacks, but Allen and this Bills offense is a different animal than nearly every other team in that regard.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏
Bills Rush Offense vs. Chiefs Rush Defense
Allen’s impact in the playoffs isn’t isolated to his throwing ability, but also what he can do on the ground. In nine career playoff games, he has 491 rushing yards which is just 25 yards shy of Top-50 in NFL history. It helps that he just broke off a 52-yard touchdown run, the second longest by a quarterback in the postseason, against the Steelers just last week. Buffalo can, and will, lean on that ability in do-or-die games but different than seasons past they have other players they can lean on to produce on the ground, mainly James Cook. The Pro Bowler will be a focal point of Buffalo’s offense on Sunday night and if the Bills can get him going early this is a game where Buffalo can win through the air and on the ground.
The Chiefs have been, at times, susceptible to the ground game this season. Heading into the postseason they ranked 24th in yards per attempt against (4.46) and the 27th Rush Defense DVOA (-1.7%). The most simplistic explanation for this is that their front four are keyed on bringing down opposing quarterbacks. This makes them susceptible to RPOs, Play-Action, and Draw Plays as their defensive line pushes upfield. This week their proficiency against the run may take a massive hit if Derrick Nnadi (DT) can’t go due to a triceps injury. Expect Buffalo to test the Chiefs’ interior early on in this game because of this with a combination of traditional rushes as well as designed runs that force the Chiefs linebackers to stick to the middle of the field. This is exactly what Buffalo’s game plan on the ground will aim at accomplishing, forcing the Chiefs to maintain some level of integrity in the box. That extends to the defensive ends who can defend the run if need be but for the majority of the year have focused almost solely on getting to the quarterback.
Now what happens if the Bills find success early and often on the ground against the Chiefs’ defense? The answer is twofold, the first part being Mike Edwards coming down into the box. Since Week 7 the safety has played 106 snaps in the box, good for 22.3% of his snaps. This alignment either forces the Chiefs out of two-high looks or makes their defense significantly lighter. The other option is to blitz a corner, specifically Sneed, something they have done significantly less in 2023. In each of the past two seasons Sneed had 40 blitzes but in 2023 had just 12. This is far less likely to be the choice of Spagnuolo however, if the run game begins to work for Buffalo expect Spagnuolo to shift somehow. In doing so the Chiefs will have to contend with Buffalo’s trio of running backs while being wary of Allen using his legs, something you can expect him to do at a significant rate this week. The goal for Buffalo is to produce a complementary offense—do that, and Buffalo should put up well north of 20 points.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏
Bills Pass Defense vs. Chiefs Pass Offense
The much-maligned head coach and defensive play-caller of the Bills has answered a lot of questions in the past six weeks. Over that span, Buffalo has gone up against the likes of Dak Prescott, Tua Tagovailoa, and Patrick Mahomes and held opposing offenses to 15.6 points per game and 284.5 yards on their way to a 6-0 record. Making this more impressive, they did this without Matt Milano (LB), Tre White (CB), and for the most part DaQuan Jones (DT). But the divisional round is building up to be the toughest task of Sean McDermott’s career as he left the Wild Card Round playing without his Nickel Corner and playing his LB5, LB6, CB4, and CB5. At least some of the players higher up the depth chart are expected to play this week, but the question remains, can McDermott will his banged-up defense to contain a less impressive, but still electric, Chiefs defense?
And less impressive is the fair term as the Chiefs’ offense averaged just 21.8 points per game, down from 29.2 in 2022. Mahomes was a major reason for this as he had the worst season of his young career due in large part to the pass catchers he was throwing to. Travis Kelce remained impressive but at times struggled with drops to the tune of a 5.8% drop rate, calling into question some form of regression for arguably the greatest tight end of all time who is now 34. After him though it’s a mish-mosh of receivers with one solid option and a slew of questionable ones. Rookie Rashee Rice is the aforementioned solid one whose all-around ability amounted to a 938-yard season as the Chiefs’ clear primary wideout. After him is slot option Justin Watson, the lengthy Marquez Valdes-Scantling, inconsistent Kadarius Toney, and intriguing Tight End No. 2 Noah Gray. All of these players have had flashes throughout the season, but none have exactly inspired fear in opponents, something that should give Buffalo this week, despite injuries. They have the depth on the outside to keep up with these skill players, but whether can they do enough over the middle to contend with Kelce and crossers remains to be seen.
Where Buffalo can produce a major advantage this week is in the trenches against a less-than-stellar Chiefs offensive line. That’s a hard pill to swallow for a team that has above-average talent at all five positions up front. Donovan Smith – above average left tackle, Joe Thuney – first-team All-Pro left guard, Creed Humphrey – Pro Bowl center, Trey Smith – solid right guard, and Jawaan Taylor – second-highest-paid right tackle in the NFL. Buffalo will need to find success against some area of this offensive line and while it has the horses to attack everywhere, there is one very real and apparent vulnerability. Expect Buffalo to go all in on flustering Taylor, who led all NFL tackles with a whopping 20 penalties this year. Buffalo needs to win against him and make Mahomes uncomfortable early to slow down this Chiefs offense. Good news for Buffalo, both Greg Rousseau and AJ Epenesa have interceptions coming off the edge against the Chiefs. Do that this week and change the game.
ADVANTAGE: Chiefs 👏👏
Bills Rush Defense vs. Chiefs Rush Offense
The Bills have been far from phenomenal against the run on the season ranking 17th in rush defense DVOA (-8.7%), but they have been good enough as of late. During their six-game winning streak, they have played a stable of above-average running backs and held their opponents to 97.7 rushing yards per game. With a player like Milano on the field that would be considered an unacceptable number but without him is something Buffalo can live with. Now, it has Jones back to help soak up some blockers up front and plug some holes during the final stretch of the season. The question for Buffalo will be, is the addition of Jones enough to level the playing field against a Chiefs team that has a feisty running back playing this week that they didn’t last time these teams met?
That player is none other than Isiah Pacheco who has been described as a player who runs like he is mad at the ground. On the season he has a long run of just 48 yards while maintaining an impressive yards per attempt of 4.6, two numbers that suggest the standard deviation between the two aligns with consistency. What makes Pacheco even more dangerous is that he can pound the interior of the box or test the edges for extra yardage when he needs to. His running style is set to put the Bills’ linebackers and safeties on uncomfortable islands and force defenders to make business decisions. Pacheco wasn’t on the field last time these teams met, and it showed, this week he has a very real chance to control this game for the Chiefs.
But as wild as it seems he isn’t the greatest concern for Buffalo on the ground, it’s Mahomes. The quarterback ran the ball just 75 times this season but on 36% of those runs he picked up a first down. His ability to identify broken containment and/or the lack of a spy has always been a massive boon for the Chiefs and this season has been a paramount attribute of his game. Buffalo is going to need to utilize their mush pass rush against him this week with a focus on their defensive tackles collapsing the pocket and defensive ends maintaining contain to avoid Mahomes taking over this game. Further to this point, can the Bills’ inexperienced linebackers execute their zone drops while maintaining some level of spy on the Chiefs? This may be the key to the game, and the deciding factor for which team heads to the AFC Championship game next week.
ADVANTAGE: Chiefs 👏👏👏
Bills Special Teams vs. Chiefs Special Teams
The Tyler Bass question is becoming a very real and very concerning conversation in Buffalo. In his postseason career, he is just 11/15 on field goals, most recently missing a 27-yard field goal, while hitting only 88.5% of his extra points. Every time Bass lines up for a kick is a hold-your-breath moment for Bills fans, something which shouldn’t be the case for a kicker of his caliber. Oddly enough the Bills are in an even more dire situation at punter with Sam Martin popping his hamstring in the Wild Card Round calling into question his availability for this week’s game. In a corresponding move, the Bills signed ex-punter Matt Haack as an emergency plan and a player who likely will be called up to both punt and hold for the Bills on Sunday. Lastly is the Bills return game, which is all but non-existent, in a good way. As of late, they are rightly fair, catching nearly all of their kick returns while giving Deonte Harty the freedom to decide if or when he wants to take a punt back.
The Chiefs are in a nearly polar opposite position on Special Teams as the Bills. Their kicker, Harrison Butker, has a career postseason 86.2% field goal rate as well as a 94.9% extra point rate as one of the league’s most consistent kickers. As opposed to the current iteration of Bass, when Butker takes the field, the expectation should be that the kick is going through the uprights regardless of the distance. As for punter, the Chiefs trot out Tommy Townsend, who was an All-Pro in 2022 and is coming off a 2023 campaign where he posted 47.1 yards per punt and 41.9 net yards per punt, each acceptable numbers in the modern NFL. Lastly returning for the Chiefs is Richie James who for the most part has only been a threat on punt return. Oddly enough, they have had just one real kick return since December 3, 2023, while James’s 10.0 yards per punt return makes him a threat to flip the field on a poor punt.
ADVANTAGE: Chiefs 👏👏👏👏
Why Buffalo Will Lose
When you have a quarterback with the abilities of Mahomes, the talent around him doesn’t inherently determine the outcome of the game. This week, considering the Bills injuries, the Chiefs arguably have more talent. On the offensive side of the ball, the Chiefs have matchups on the ground and through the air that they should be able to take advantage of. Short of a handful of drops and/or an unfortunate turnover or two the Chiefs have the ability to dominate the Bills’ defense despite their season-long struggles.
On the other side of the ball, it all comes down to Spagnuolo and how he decides to mess with Allen. If there is one thing the Chiefs know it’s that Allen and company are coming into this game with an all-or-nothing mentality, and they can take advantage of that. Goad Allen into a couple of errant throws or force him to hold onto the ball a tad too long and that could be all she wrote. If the Chiefs force two or more turnovers this one may be all but over, and the Bills will remain the little brother of the mighty Kansas City Chiefs.
Why Buffalo Will Win
When you have a quarterback with the abilities of Allen the talent around him doesn’t inherently determine the outcome of the game. This week, considering the Bills injuries, the Bills arguably have less talent. Thus, Superman will be called upon and why can’t a player who has had to play that role for the better part of the past four years do it again this week? The answer is, there is no reason. Allen described this as a game he has been “waiting for.” The wait is here, and his capabilities coupled with the talent of Stefon Diggs, Dalton Kincaid, James Cook, and more suggest Buffalo is ready to toss the monkey off their back.
On the other side of the ball, there is another person trying to end the narrative: Sean McDermott. He has far from the talent he may want to end the reign of the Chiefs, but he may have the mind to supplement it. There will be backups on the field for McDermott on Sunday, that’s a guarantee, but if there is one thing McDermott has proven the past two months is that he can will the lesser to be greater. They need to be great this week but if this is what Allen has been waiting for, I can guarantee you McDermott has been ready for.
Prediction: Bills 28 – Chiefs 20
Rasul Douglas, Tyrel Dodson, Taron Johnson, Terrel Bernard, Taylor Rapp. Buffalo needs at least two of those players to play. They do, and Buffalo has enough to win this game. Assuming that this prediction comes down to two things. First, Bills Mafia. If you’ve never been to The Ralph (Highmark Stadium) that place can absolutely rock, and I would expect when Mahomes takes the field for the first time on Sunday to be the loudest that place has ever been. Second, the Chiefs want this win, the Bills need this win. Desperation has the ability to generate chaos and in the case of this moment that chaos may just play into the Buffalo Bills favor.