The battles between Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills and Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs have become appointment football viewing.

They’ll meet in the playoffs for the third time in four years in the AFC divisional round on Sunday when the Bills try to get over the main hump that’s kept them out of the Super Bowl thus far in Allen’s career. 

But while Mahomes has won both of their playoff matchups, in 2021 and ‘22, Allen has the home field in his favor this time at Highmark Stadium. Mahomes has yet to play a playoff road game in his career, but he needs to do that on Sunday in Orchard Park, New York, because the Bills won at Arrowhead in December and later secured the AFC’s No. 2 playoff seed ahead of the Chiefs.

The Bills also won the teams’ regular season meeting in 2022, so while they haven’t clipped Mahomes in the postseason, they have some proof of concept. 

To that point, a Bills win would feel like an upset, but just a bit: They’re 2.5-point favorites at home, according to sportsbooks. Our supercomputer agrees the Bills are the best bets, giving them a 59.0% chance to win. 

Projected Winner: Bills

Win Probability: 59.0%

This meeting is also tied with some of the other matchups of the weekend for the highest SmartRatings score of any game the entire season.

SmartRatings’ excitement scale translates to the following general sub-ranges: 0-39 (Dull Game), 40-64 (OK Game), 65-84 (Good Game), 85-100 (Great Game).


The winner either visits the Baltimore Ravens or hosts the Houston Texans in the AFC championship next Sunday with a trip to Super Bowl 53 on the line.

Here are three crucial subplots as Buffalo and underdog Kansas City go after each other. 

Will Someone (Anyone?) Make a Play for Mahomes? 

The Chiefs pursued a wise roster-building strategy as Mahomes matriculated from a relatively cheap rookie contract to the biggest payout in NFL history on his second deal: They paid their star quarterback all the money in the world, because he was worth it, and relied on drafting, development, and bargain-basement pickups elsewhere to supplement the roster.

That approach has worked pretty well, as 2022’s Super Bowl laid plain. The Chiefs relied on a handful of rookie seventh-round picks (running back Isiah Pacheco and cornerbacks Jaylen Watson and Nazeeh Johnson) and had tons of mid-round picks and non-blockbuster free-agent signees filling out the roster. One of those, wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, played on a one-year, $3.76 million deal and drew the holding penalty that sealed the Super Bowl win. 

Smith-Schuster is gone now, and the Chiefs’ development at receiver has fallen miles short of the organization’s work at other positions. In its second year since trading Tyreek Hill, the team does not have anything approaching an elite receiver. To the contrary, K.C.’s pass-catching core has had immense drop problems.

Three receivers have at least five drops and Mahomes has seen 5.46% of his throws dropped – the most of any starting QB. Kansas City’s wideouts have repeatedly let down Mahomes in big moments with those drops and other mental errors.

The most famous screwup was Kadarius Toney lining up offside in the first Buffalo game and nullifying his own game-winning touchdown after catching a heady lateral from Travis Kelce. Kelce remains a machine by most tight ends’ standards but has taken a noticeable step back in nearly every statistical category at 34 years old. 

The failures of Mahomes’ supporting cast are the driving reason that the Chiefs aren’t hosting this game. There’s a glimmer of hope in the form of rookie Rashee Rice, a second-round pick from SMU who’s gone over the 100-yard mark in each of the last two games (including the wild-card round) and caught a 67-yard pass in one and a 39-yarder in the other. Rice is a slippery route-runner; his 68.6% burn rate in the regular season was 20th in the NFL and painted him as one of the sport’s hardest men to guard.

In turn, Rice averaged 8.5 yards after the catch – third in the league among receivers with 10 targets or more. If someone is going to lift up his quarterback on Sunday, Rice is the best candidate outside of Kelce. 

The Chiefs Have Had Big Josh Allen Problems. Will They Have More?

Gone are the days of Kansas City having one of the worst all-around defenses in the NFL. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has done an excellent job and has substantial talent at all three levels: game-wrecking defensive end Chris Jones, inside linebacker Nick Bolton, and the elite cornerback duo of Trent McDuffie and L’Jarius Sneed.

Not surprisingly, a defense with that talent profile was stifling against the pass. Opposing offenses managed just a 35.8% success rate with the pass during the regular season – the fourth-lowest rate against any defense. The secondary was tremendous at blanketing would-be pass catchers, ranking third in the league with a 74.3% open-allowed rate.  

They were even better in the playoff opener, holding Miami to a 29.5% passing success rate.

chiefs pass D

The NFL is a passing league, and a defense that defends the pass that well will thrive. Despite a much more average performance against the run, Kansas City had a top-five overall unit by yards per play, points per game, and expected points added. And unlike a few years ago when the Chiefs defense had an obvious weak link in deep safety Daniel Sorensen, the current K.C. defense does not have one mega-obvious player to pick on. Opposing offenses need a detailed plan to beat them. 

So it’s helpful for Buffalo to have a quarterback who both runs and throws well. The Chiefs did a nice job against Allen in their December meeting, keeping him to 32 yards on 10 runs (albeit one for a touchdown) and picking him off once on his 43 throws, which only totaled 271 yards.

But Allen, in addition to his very famous playoff exploits against Kansas City in the past, has pretty much been gangbusters since that December meeting. He delivered a vintage performance last weekend against the Pittsburgh Steelers: 21-of-30 passing for 203 yards and three touchdowns (no interceptions) and a 52-yard touchdown run that more or less ended the game in the first half. 

In their regular-season meetings in the past, the Chiefs have bottled up Allen fairly well on the ground, never letting him reach 60 yards with his legs. But his scrambling has been an enormous problem (which the Chiefs have ultimately overcome) in their two playoff meetings.

In addition to his successes on designed runs, like that long TD on Sunday, Allen was the league’s second-most productive scrambler this season, averaging 6.1 yards when he took off on a pass play. (Justin Fields’ 6.6 led the league.) 

Do the Bills Have an X-Factor? 

In the teams’ legendary divisional round meeting at the end of the 2021 season, a 42-36 Chiefs win in overtime, the Bills got a breakout performance from receiver Gabe Davis. With the Chiefs focused on game-planning Stefon Diggs out of the action (three catches for 7 yards on six targets), Davis exploded for 201 yards on eight catches and caught a record four touchdowns, including two memorable ones in the closing moments of regulation.

Buffalo’s defense couldn’t stop Mahomes, but the offense kept pace because of Allen’s brilliance and Davis’ emergence as a No. 1 receiver when the Bills’ true No. 1, Diggs, was quiet. 

Late in this season, with Davis injured, it looks like the Bills have a new serious receiving threat to go alongside Diggs. In addition to steady work from tight ends Dalton Kincaid and Dawson Knox, Buffalo has gotten a big boost from a smallish receiver: the 6-foot, 190-pound Khalil Shakir.

The second-year man out of Boise State had a 105-yard game with six catches on six targets to key a win in the regular season finale against Miami, and he made the play of the day in the Bills’ first playoff game. Shakir caught a ball from Allen on a crossing pattern, shook off All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, changed direction, and embarrassed the rest of the defense with a series of vicious jukes for a 17-yard score: 

That moment was Shakir’s big elevation on the national stage, but he’s been an encouraging prospect for a while. With strong peripheral numbers, he made our index of potential breakout receivers back in the preseason, and he’s paid that off as his role has grown.

Shakir is an excellent route-runner, with a 73.3% burn rate that placed him ninth in the league in the regular season. He was the single best receiver in football at getting open, as his 93.3% open rate led the league among players who got more than 18 targets. (Shakir got 45, with almost all of them coming after mid-October.)

Shakir didn’t drop a pass and among receivers who had as many targets as he did, only Deebo Samuel and the Chiefs’ Rice exceeded his 7.4-yard average after the catch. For a while, it looked like if defenses could shut down Diggs as the Chiefs have done in the past, Buffalo’s wideout room couldn’t hurt them.

Shakir has changed that equation and given Spagnuolo and company a significant point of worry in the NFL’s divisional round.

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