Here are my five takes on Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium:
1. Show up for a playoff-like game with playoff-like intensity. Rex Ryan and his players have said all of the right things about the magnitude of this showdown of 5-5 teams in the thick of the wild-card playoff chase. They seem to firmly grasp the idea that, although a loss won’t effectively end the season, the winner will have a significantly better chance of playing beyond the final week of the schedule.
Now, it’s a matter of actually playing that way. Monday night’s loss against New England took a big physical and mental toll, and the short recovery time (potentially compounded by the gorging that athletes, just like the rest of us, tend to do around a Thanksgiving dinner table) could very well make it difficult for the focus to be as sharp as necessary.
This will be a big test for Ryan and his coaching staff. Besides finding the right combinations on the defensive and offensive lines to make up for the injuries to end Mario Williams and guard John Miller, they also need to do their part to make sure the team maintains its edge after a dispiriting performance where victory was there for the taking if only the offense could have made some plays.
2. Defense must avoid being victimized by the Chiefs’ exceptional screen game. Most opponents are liberal in their use of screens against the Bills because of the attack-oriented nature of their front seven. And they tend to have success with it because they’re able to take advantage of the over-pursuit by linemen and linebackers.
No quarterback in the NFL is as adept at executing screen passes as Alex Smith, who has ridden many of those high-percentage throws to a streak of 253 attempts without an interception. He has superb feel for the rush, a great sense of timing of just when to make his release, and consistently perfect touch and accuracy that allows the receiver to catch the ball and begin running in one fluid motion.
Despite the season-ending injury to running back Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs still have a highly effective target out of the backfield in Charcandrick West. He is questionable for the game with a hamstring injury and if he can’t play or is limited, the Chiefs have a solid alternative in Spencer Ware. They also have offensive linemen with the mobility and precision to get themselves in place to create running room on the move.
3. Do another tight-end smother on Travis Kelce. The Bills made good on their promise to make Rob Gronkowski virtually disappear Monday night. That went a long way toward helping the defensive front to get double-digit hits on Tom Brady while preventing him from having the same sort of monster numbers he enjoyed in September at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
They will need to have a similar showing against Kelce, who leads the Chiefs with 50 receptions for 620 yards and three touchdowns. Although he is questionable for the game with an ankle injury, he represents one of only two true options that Smith has for passing plays that stretch the field. The other is Jeremy Maclin, who ranks second on the team with 48 catches for 612 yards and two scores. However, just as with Gronkowski and the Patriot wide receivers and running backs, Maclin and every other Kansas City pass-catcher generally feed off of the extra coverage attention that Kelce draws. Look for the Bills to utilize a variety of defenders – linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties – to either play man-to-man or double-coverage against Kelce.
4. Tyrod Taylor bounces back from his clunker in a big way. Among the traits that help in his development as a starting quarterback is the ability to remain on an even keel. Taylor had an extremely frustrating night against New England. His deep ball, considered a strength, was a glaring problem when he failed to complete a pair of sure touchdown throws. He had other passes that came nowhere near the intended target and at least one that very likely would have been a pick-six.
Yet, Taylor showed no public displays of disappointment over the way he played, which is the sort of blind optimism that the best quarterbacks in NFL history share. Nor did he allow himself to lose his cool while facing difficult questions from the media. Although he faltered in his first appearance on the Monday Night Football stage, Taylor can quickly make amends by rising to the occasion in a game that has much more on the line. He needs to do his part to help put the Chiefs into an early hole, which could be difficult for them to escape with limited big-play capability.
5. Keep feeding LeSean McCoy as a runner and receiver. His 123 rushing and receiving yards provided the foundation of an offense that, with better execution by Taylor and others, would very well have allowed the Bills to deliver a massive upset. Few opponents are equipped to handle McCoy’s tremendous open-field speed and ability to dart through holes or make them on his own by slipping through slivers of daylight.
As a pass-catcher, he’s exceptionally difficult for any defender, including a cornerback, to cover one-on-one. The Bills shouldn’t hesitate to take more deep shots with him, such as the one that he failed to catch (with a little last-second involvement from cornerback Devin McCourty) against the Patriots. Given the inconsistent production of Sammy Watkins and only sporadic big plays from the other receivers and tight end Charles Clay, McCoy should be more frequently targeted as the outstanding multi-purpose weapon that he is.
Now that he has fully recovered from the hamstring issue that bothered him earlier in the year and in a game of this magnitude, the Bills certainly have no reason to play it safe with him.