(CBS Detroit) — The Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs both advanced to the AFC Championship this Sunday. The Bills smothered the Baltimore Ravens in a matchup largely lacking the offensive outburst it seemed to promise. The Chiefs managed to hold off the Cleveland Browns after Patrick Mahomes exited the game and entered the NFL’s concussion protocol. The Bills will travel to Kansas City this weekend to meet the Chiefs, with a trip to Super Bowl LV on the line.
The Chiefs won the first meeting between these teams back in mid-October, by the score of 26-17. Mahomes and his counterpart Josh Allen were both held relatively in check, with the former limited to 225 yards passing and two touchdowns, and the latter limited to 122 yards passing and two touchdowns. However Chiefs rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire exploded for 161 yards on 26 carries.
For much of the week, it looked like Mahomes might not get the chance to redeem himself this week. Midway through the third quarter of the team’s divisional round matchup, he took a hit from Cleveland linebacker Mack Wilson that left him woozy. Unsteady on his feet, he was helped off the field and was soon ruled out for the rest of the game. After the game, head coach Andy Reid seemed to indicate that Mahomes would be okay. And a review of the actual tackle suggests a neck injury rather than a head injury. But the former NFL MVP and reigning Super Bowl MVP still had to make it through concussion protocol, leaving his status uncertain. He was listed as a limited participant in Wednesday and Thursday’s practice. But Friday, he was cleared to play, according to the quarterback.
Before the injury, Mahomes had put together a solid game, going 21-30 for 255 yards and a touchdown. Backup Chad Henne helped the Chiefs hold on to their lead, connecting on six more passes for another 66 yards, among them a late fourth-down completion to Tyreek Hill to seal the game.
Henne will return to the sideline for the championship. While the 35-year-old backup performed admirably, he’s not the face of the Chiefs franchise. Mahomes will have a variety of weapons at their disposal. Hill and Travis Kelce, two of the NFL’s leading receivers, each had eight catches for over 100 yards in the divisional round win. Hill was top 10 in receiving yards (1,276) and second in receiving touchdowns (15) in the regular season. Kelce was second in the league in terms of yards (1,416) and top five in receptions (105) and receiving touchdowns (11). Rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire missed the Browns game due to injuries, but Darrel Williams picked up 78 yards on 13 carries filling in. And then there’s always Le’Veon Bell on the sidelines.
The Bills defense just shut down another of the NFL’s most explosive quarterbacks. The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson was held to 34 yards rushing and 162 yards passing with no touchdowns before exiting with a concussion late in the third quarter. He did throw a costly interception, which Bills cornerback Taron Johnson returned 101 yards for a touchdown. The NFL’s top rushing team during the regular season was also held to 150 yards on the ground, well below its average.
Even if the Bills can’t slow Mahomes and company, they’re one of the few teams that can keep pace with the Chiefs. The Josh Rosen-led offense actually scored more points than Kansas City in the regular season. Second only to the Packers, the Bills averaged a lofty 31.3 points per game. A late-season scoring surge certainly helped, along with the continued development of their young quarterback.
According to NFL On CBS analyst Jay Feely, “when you look back three years and you see how he has remade himself as a quarterback and made himself into an accurate quarterback, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, I think it starts with humility for him. To look at yourself each offseason and say ‘where do my deficiencies lie and how can I get better?’ Whether that’s with his coaches there in Buffalo or out in California with Jordan Palmer, where he spends his offseasons. Looking at his fundamentals and looking at what’s going to make him a better quarterback. Each offseason they set out and say ‘these are the three things we’re going to improve on this offseason.’ Then the next year, they did the same thing. He’s continually taken a look at himself and not had an ego about it at all. Creating this base that leads to success and trying to become a rotational thrower and understand where his strengths are in the ability to throw off-platform, but how to utilize that and make it a strength and make it something where you can be accurate while doing that.”
Allen threw for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns during the regular season, which put him in elite company. The addition of wide receiver Stefon Diggs elevated an already potent offense. And their new star wide receiver put up elite numbers, leading the league in receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535). The ground game was quite a bit less potent, with none of their running backs coming anywhere close to 1,000 yards.
“They’re going to have to have balance,” says Feely. “They didn’t have any balance in that game against Baltimore, hardly ran the ball at all. If you make yourself one-dimensional, it just makes it so much easier for a defensive coordinator trying to scheme up how to affect and impact you.”
The Bills offense has heavily favored the pass in its first two playoff games, which could favor a Chiefs defense that’s been a little sketchy against the run. Kansas City allowed 122.1 yards per game on the ground during the regular season, which put them in the bottom half of the league. But last week they also managed to limit the Browns, one of the NFL’s best rushing teams.
Regardless of the defense and how the Bills attack it, the key for the Chiefs is still Mahomes. This is a much better team with him on the field.
The Bills play the Chiefs Sunday, January 24 @ 6:40 p.m. ET on CBS.