The Bills deserved to win Sunday night’s AFC divisional playoff game at Kansas City because of stellar play by quarterback Josh Allen. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t win because they also had to field a defense against Patrick Mahomes.
The Chiefs outlasted the Bills 42-36 in overtime. They did it by ripping a Buffalo defense that topped the NFL in fewest points allowed (17 per game) and fewest yards allowed (274.6 per game) in the regular season.
Mahomes threw for 378 yards against the No. 1 pass defense (165.9 yards per game). The Chiefs, with Mahomes also leading the way, rushed for 182 yards against the No. 10 run defense (108.6 yards per game).
So what went wrong for the Bills under defensive-minded coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who until Sunday was having a great season callling plays? In short, everything. The Chiefs punted only twice and would have won the game much earlier and in less dramatic fashion had they not gotten cute on a few drives that led to field goal attempts, one of which was missed.
Allen, who outplayed every QB in this year’s playoffs, including Mahomes, in his two games, did his best to save the day with terrific back-to-back fourth-quarter TD drives. But they didn’t matter much when the Bills allowed the Chiefs to find easy answers.
The epic fail in allowing Mahomes to move the Chiefs into game-tying field goal range in the final 13 seconds of the fourth quarter will be most remembered. It was foreshadowed, however, by fundamental issues that developed earlier in the game:
1. Failure to adjust coverage and pressure
This was by far the worst problem. McDermott and Frazier were expected not to blitz Mahomes much. The problem is, the Chiefs were anticipating that. The Bills were so concerned about the big pass play from Mahomes’ big arm that their scheme was too predictable.
Mahomes adjusted at midseason to show more patience against zone defenses. He got comfortable not forcing things downfield when they weren’t there. The Chiefs became more accepting of taking what was given and committing more to the run, traditional or otherwise. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Mahomes avoided the temptation all game to attempt a deep pass, something that had never happened in his career.
Patrick Mahomes faced two-high safety shells on 92% of plays, the 2nd-highest rate of his career. As a result, Mahomes did not attempt a deep pass for the first full game in his career.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 24, 2022
The Chiefs saw a two-high safety shell on 92 percent of their offensive snaps. Mahomes responded by going 29 of 38 for 344 of his passing yards and two of his three TD passes against that look. That’s a 76.3 completion percentage at 9 yards per attempt and a 120.9 efficiency rating.
BILLS-CHIEFS: Updates, highlights from divisional playoff game
Mahomes racked up big numbers with his two go-to guys, wide receiver Tyreek Hill (11 catches, 150 yards, late go-ahead TD) and tight end Travis Kelce (eight catches, 96 yards, game-winning TD). The Bills’ coaches should have realized the two-deep look wasn’t stopping anything and pivoted to mixing it up with well-timed blitzes. They didn’t just wait until it was too late; it never happened.
2. Bad tackling against the run and after the catch
The Chiefs didn’t need Mahomes to take shots when Hill, Kelce, Mecole Hardman, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jerick McKinnon and Byron Pringle were all slipping tackles after initial contact and exploding into open field after getting the ball on runs and short passes. There was too much wide-open space and the diversity of players involved often caught would-be tacklers out of position on the second level and in the secondary.
Coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, McDermott and Frazier’s counterparts, were smart to design intermediate plays to maximize the speed and quickness of their playmakers. The Bills’ linebacker corps, an all-around strength, became an all-out weakness. With the safeties playing back, they were too far away to help clean up and there was too much space in between. Mahomes had his way with the middle of the field from wire to wire. The Bills also couldn’t handle Mahomes’ scrambling when pass plays broke down.
3. Critical mistakes in critical situations
The Bills exacerbated their sloppiness in giving up chunk plays after the catch by having consistent lapses in coverage. They made it too easy for the Chiefs on third and fourth down, allowing them to convert 9 of 14 combined opportunities (64.3 percent). The Chiefs also got two first downs via penalty.
Before Mahomes’ final drive in regulation, the Bills’ ineptitude was on full display when Hill scampered to the end zone with zero resistance. It started when he got open and continued with him shooting through five defenders to the sideline for a lightning-fast 64-yard score with 1:02 left in the game. That turned a 29-26 lead into a 33-29 deficit in a blink. The Bills were worn down at the point, and Mahomes continue to have easy reads to his best players against tired pursuers.
4. ‘Prevent’ didn’t prevent anything
The Bills saved their worst for the last Chiefs posssesion of regulation. When they should have flipped the switch away from the two-deep looks, they instead went in the other direction, going into an extreme prevent with Hail Mary looks. They were so concerned about Hill getting behind them again, they failed to recognize Mahomes had not been taking shots over the top all game.
Mahomes’ only choice with 13 seconds left from his own 25 and needing a field goal was playing for the field goal. The aim was getting inside the Bills’ 40, or gaining 35 yards in two plays. The Bills needed to squeeze more, not give him 20-yard plus cushions and play off coverage. Beyond everything else, the Bills didn’t take away Hill or Kelce all game.
Both the 19-yard strike to Hill and the 25-yard pop to Kelce looked like extended handoffs with both receivers turning on the jets while being aware of the clock. Mahomes was sacked twice and faced some early pressure in the game, but by the end against a worn-down unit, his eyes got wider knowing he would have time to throw against a four-man rush.
The Bills thought they had Mahomes solved in their Week 5 meeting, also in Kansas City. But the 38-20 final in Buffalo’s favor was fueled by winning the takeaway battle 4-0. Mahomes and Chiefs didn’t turn the ball over in the rematch, taking advantage of low-risk, high-reward plays. Fooling Mahomes twice with something he saw the first time? That’s the arrogant, failed mess the Bills put on the field Sunday.