On the onset of the NFL season, our supercomputer had the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills on a collision course to meet in the AFC conference championship game.
Entering the final five weeks of the regular season, however, neither is playing like a Super Bowl contender – much less like a playoff-bound team.
The Chiefs are coming off last Sunday night’s 27-19 loss to the Green Bay Packers for their third “L” in their last five games – the same number of defeats as in their previous 24 contests – while the Bills stumbled into their bye week on the heels of a 37-34 overtime setback to the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 26 – their third loss in their last four games.
Despite their recent struggles, the Chiefs are still in good shape to make the playoffs – thanks to the fact no other team in the AFC West has a winning record. However, they desperately need to string some victories together to keep pace with the conference leaders for there to be a realistic shot of the AFC title game returning to Kansas City.
As for the Bills, their playoffs essentially begin Sunday on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium (on CBS).
With so much riding on this game for a pair of teams that have been fixtures in the playoffs the last few years, SmartRatings gives this contest a 71 on its excitement scale – second among all the NFL games behind only the Eagles-Dallas Cowboys clash on the Week 14 schedule.
Sportsbooks have KC as 2.0-point favorites in this one, and our supercomputer agrees that the Chiefs are the best bets with a 55.1% win probability (as of Friday).
Back on Sept. 7, our supercomputer gave the Bills an 88.3% chance of reaching the playoffs, just ahead of the Chiefs at 87.1% for the highest in the AFC. At that point, it also calculated Kansas City with a 46.5% chance of playing in the conference title game and Buffalo with a 39.7% chance – the two highest by any AFC teams.
Fast forward three months, and the Bills’ probability of playing in the conference title game is down to 9.9%, while their chances of being one of the top seven in the AFC and making the playoffs is at 35.4%.
At 6-6, the underdog Bills are currently slotted into 11th place in the AFC and need to jump four teams to make the playoffs for a fifth straight season. Not an ideal situation, but not all hope is lost.
Five of the teams they’re chasing – the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns – are down to their backup quarterbacks. While those teams are trotting out C.J. Beathard, Mitch Trubisky, Gardner Minshew, Jake Browning and Joe Flacco or Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Buffalo does still have a two-time Pro Bowler as its signal-caller in Josh Allen.
So should one of those other teams stumble – which seems likely – the Bills are primed to make a late-season push behind Allen.
Although Buffalo certainly has the leg up at quarterback and could be getting starting tight end Dawson Knox back for this game after being sidelined since NFL Week 7 because of a wrist injury, a loss to the Chiefs could be the knockout blow to its chances of making the playoffs, as it would be its sixth defeat within the conference.
Arrowhead Stadium is one of the toughest places for opposing teams to play, and although the Bills are just 1-4 away from Buffalo this season, Allen and company won’t be intimidated by the raucous atmosphere or the Chiefs defense.
Buffalo has won its last two regular-season visits in 2021 and 2022, but the Chiefs have won the last two playoff matchups in Kansas City following the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that the Chiefs haven’t looked like themselves lately, but our supercomputer is still giving them a 93.4% chance of winning the AFC West. Overall, we’re projecting Kansas City with a 95.5% chance of reaching the playoffs and 38.3% chance of playing for the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
The Chiefs, though, must play better to have any shot at defending their Super Bowl title.
They’ve scored under 22 points in four of their last five with only 13 plays going for 20 or more yards – tied for the sixth fewest in the NFL since Week 8. Patrick Mahomes has looked rather ordinary, throwing for 210 yards with a touchdown and interception at Green Bay for a 79.1 quarterback rating – his fifth sub-80 rating of the season. He had one sub-80 passer rating all last season.
It hasn’t been all bad (Mahomes has played great in their recent wins), it’s just we’re not accustomed to these types of struggles from the two-time league MVP and seven-time defending AFC West champs.
Much has been made of Kansas City’s struggles at receiver this season with Rashee Rice being the only one with more than 22 receptions. Tight end Travis Kelce is obviously a huge part of the passing game, but Mahomes has limited downfield threats.
Kelce has been a nightmare for the Bills in the past with 40 receptions for 444 yards and six touchdowns in the last five meetings, but to help facilitate the passing game and open things up downfield, the Chiefs should put a greater emphasis on running the ball.
KC Key: Run the Ball
Last Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Chiefs nearly averaged as many yards on the ground rushing with Isiah Pacheco as they did through the air. Pacheco averaged 6.11 yards on his 18 carries for 110 yards, while Mahomes averaged just 6.36 yards on his 33 pass attempts.
Eight of Pacheco’s runs were first downs that moved the chains, and three carries went for at least 10 yards with a long of 26. He also punched the ball in from the 1-yard line to get the Chiefs within two points in the third quarter.
Punched may have been the wrong word there, as he was ultimately ejected for throwing a punch during a scuffle on Kansas City’s final drive, but he has brought some needed energy to the offense with his fierce running style. Now Pacheco will be sidelined because of a shoulder injury, but that doesn’t mean the Chiefs should ditch the run game.
The ground attack, which will now feature Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon, has been working for Kansas City. Since Week 8, the Chiefs are registering a run success rate of 38.3% – eighth in the league – after having the fifth-worst run-success rate (30.8%) through the season’s first seven weeks.
Prioritizing a rushing attack also makes sense against a Buffalo team that has struggled to stop the run, allowing an average of 4.67 yards per rush – the NFL’s fourth-worst rate. In the last game before their bye, the Bills surrendered a season-high seven runs of at least 10 yards to the Eagles.
On the season, they’re yielding a gain of 10+ yards on 14.0% of all opponents’ rushing attempts – the league’s third-worst rate.
BUF Key: Bring the Heat
While the Bills have had some issues stopping the run, that same defensive front excels at pressuring the quarterback.
The Bills have the league’s fifth-highest pressure rate at 40.4%, rank third in quarterback knockdowns with 81 and are tied for third in sacks. With 41 sacks on 430 drop backs, no team sacks opposing QBs at a higher rate than Buffalo at 9.5.
Mahomes has generally been tough to sack. He is adept at moving in the pocket to avoid the rush and is a dangerous passer when he gets to the outside so opposing defenses must stay disciplined and can’t go all-in on trying to run him down. Lately, though, he’s been taken down behind the line of scrimmage at a higher rate.
Mahomes was sacked a season high-tying three times last week, and is being sacked on 5.3% of pass plays since Week 8 after being sacked on 2.6% of drop backs in the first seven weeks – the lowest rate in the NFL.
Leonard Floyd leads Buffalo’s pass rush with 9.5 sacks – his fourth straight season with at least 9.0 sacks. The only player with a longer active streak of seasons accumulating 9.0 or more sacks is the Browns’ Myles Garrett with six.
Floyd was credited with five quarterback pressures of Hurts, while fellow defensive end Greg Rousseau tallied four. On the season, Floyd ranks sixth in knockdown rate (8.2) and ninth in pressure rate (20.8) out of 49 edge rushers with a minimum of 175 pass rushes.
Tackles Tim Settle and Linval Joseph each sacked Hurts once in Buffalo’s last game, but it’s been Floyd, end A.J. Epenesa and tackle Ed Oliver who are routinely applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks so their teammates can make plays.
Adjusted Sack Rate Leaders (Minimum 125 Pass Rushes)
- Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns (8.3)
- A.J. Epenesa, Buffalo Bills (7.4)
- Rashan Gary, Green Bay Packers (6.6)
- Leonard Floyd, Buffalo Bills (6.6)
- Trey Hendrickson, Cincinnati Bengals (6.5)
- Justin Madubuike, Baltimore Ravens (5.4)
- Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs (5.0)
- Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills (5.0)
- Javon Hargrave, San Francisco 49ers (4.6)
- Christian Barmore, New England Patriots (4.3)
Buffalo’s pass rush has been relentless despite eight-time Pro Bowler Von Miller not having much of a presence since returning in Week 5 from a torn ACL sustained on Thanksgiving 2022.
The NFL’s active leader in sacks has yet to record one in eight games and appeared in just 21 of 66 defensive plays against the Eagles. Despite facing domestic violence charge, he is available to play against the Chiefs.
In the last Chiefs vs. Bills showdown in Week 6 of last season, Buffalo was able to get to Mahomes with Miller sacking him twice and the defense intercepting him twice in a 24-20 comeback win. Stefon Diggs also had 10 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown.
Mahomes is now dealing with a pectoral injury, and Allen is listed on the injury report with a hurt right shoulder, but both of these star quarterbacks will be on the field come Sunday for this clash between AFC heavyweights looking to get back on track.