The last time the Buffalo Bills reached the AFC Championship Game of the playoffs was after the 1993 season. Jim Kelly was their quarterback that year, Thurman Thomas the running back, Andre Reed the top wide receiver, and Marv Levy the head coach. The team was on its way to a fourth straight Super Bowl loss.
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27 years later, Josh Allen is the quarterback. Stefon Diggs is his top weapon, and Sean McDermott’s 2020 Bills are in position to become perennial contenders like their early-90s counterparts. Of course, McDermott would also like to win a Super Bowl or two, unlike those Bills teams of yesteryear.
The first step will be getting there, and the defending NFL champions stand in their way. Here’s the NFL Recap breakdown of the Buffalo Bills as they prepare to face Patrick Mahomes (?) and the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, January 24th at 6:40 PM.
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AFC Championship Game Preview: Buffalo Bills
How the Buffalo Bills got here
The Bills survived a gritty, blustery, somewhat messy 17-3 defensive duel with the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Thanks in large part to Taron Johnson’s 101-yard return of a third-quarter Lamar Jackson goal-line interception. The Bills are now on an eight-game winning streak. Even more impressively, they’ve won all but one of those games (last week’s 27-24 Wild Card round victory over the Indianapolis Colts) by 10 or more points.
Josh Allen toughens through windy conditions
Every week brings a new test for Allen as he climbs into the ranks of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
On Saturday night, he overcame both a tight Baltimore defense and a stiff wind that briefly brought back the old Captain Overthrow version of Allen in the first quarter. Allen was just 23 of 37 passing, but he didn’t turn the ball over (despite one mishandled snap). He moved the offense just well enough to lead one crisp touchdown drive and give the Bills a field position edge throughout the game.
Sometimes, you learn more about a quarterback when everything isn’t going his way than when he’s lighting up the stat sheets and highlight reels.
Buffalo Bills’ weapons
Stefon Diggs is the NFL’s best route runner. He led the league in receptions (127) and yards (1,535) and has 14 catches for 234 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Bills’ two playoff games.
Cole Beasley is one of the league’s most reliable targets over the short middle of the field. John Brown, who was injured for much of the second half of the season, is a speedy boundary threat. He did his part on Saturday night by catching eight receptions against the Ravens. Isaiah McKenzie is a slot jitterbug who can cause real problems when matched up against the opponent’s fourth-best cover corner.
Devin Singletary and Zack Moss form a standard-issue running back committee. Tight end Dawson Knox is more of a blocker than a receiving threat.
Buffalo Bills’ offensive line
The Bills’ offensive line allowed just seven sacks in their final seven regular season games before allowing a (still solid) two sacks each against the Colts and Ravens in the playoffs. Tackles Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams played nearly every snap this season, as did center Mitch Morse.
Buffalo Bills’ defense
The Bills’ defense was leaky early in the season, particularly against the run. Young players like defensive tackles Vernon Butler and Ed Oliver, along with linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, have improved as the season wore on, however. There are still plenty of soft spots in the Bills’ defensive front. Buffalo ranked sixth in the NFL with 127 missed tackles and 27th with just a 7.9% hurry rate, per Pro Football Reference.
Cornerback Tre’Davious White leads one of the NFL’s best secondaries. He’s supported by all-purpose safety Micah Hyde, slot cornerback/Saturday’s hero Taron Johnson, and veteran Josh Norman. Norman has had a better season than the Derrick Henry meme would lead you to believe.
Buffalo Bills’ special teams
Andre Roberts led the NFL with 30.0 yards per kickoff return. He sparked the lone Buffalo touchdown drive on Saturday by returning a kickoff to the 34-yard line. Rookie kicker Tyler Bass had not missed a field goal since Week 9 before missing a pair against the Ravens. In his defense, it came on a night so windy that even Justin Tucker looked like Blair Walsh.
The Buffalo Bills can beat the Kansas City Chiefs if…
Their defense limits big plays, and their offense makes the most of any unforced errors by the Chiefs. Allen can win a shootout with a wobbly, gimpy Patrick Mahomes if the Chiefs have one of those games where they lose two touchdowns to holding penalties and fail to convert on 4th-and-inches because they tried to run the Statue of Liberty play.
The Buffalo Bills will lose to the Kansas City Chiefs if…
They attempt to do what they did in their 26-17 loss in Week 6. That is, play so conservatively on both sides of the ball that it nerfs all the things that make Allen special. Andy Reid showed the Cleveland Browns in the fourth quarter on Sunday what the Chiefs do to opponents who get too conservative.
NFL Recap assumes that Patrick Mahomes (concussion, foot) will play in the AFC Championship Game. Whether Mahomes will be close to 100 percent is anyone’s guess. The Bills have a passing game that’s almost explosive enough to keep pace with a fully armed and operational Mahomes. In addition, they have a secondary almost good enough to slow down Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and the rest.
Two “almosts” rarely equal an upset. Even if Mahomes isn’t at full speed and strength, there’s a slim chance that the Bills can leverage just enough advantages (special teams, a defensive front that could push around the banged-up Chiefs’ offensive line, etc.) to pull off an upset.