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Patrick Mahomes and Co. will provide Bills' No. 1-ranked pass defense its toughest test yet

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Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes' ability to make plays on the run will stress the Buffalo Bills' defense.

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The Buffalo Bills’ secondary has done more than just survived without Tre’Davious White – it’s thrived.

That idea sounded crazy when the team’s All-Pro cornerback was hurt Thanksgiving night against the New Orleans Saints, but the numbers back it up.

The Bills finished No. 1 in the NFL in total defense (272.8 yards allowed per game), total yards per play (4.6), total passing yards per game (163.0), passing yards per play (4.65), first downs allowed per game (16.7), third-down conversion rate allowed (30.8%) and points per game (17.0).

The team held the No. 1 spot in total defense over the final 15 weeks of the season, and the No. 1 spot in pass defense in 11 of 18 weeks, including the final three weeks of the year. Second-year veteran Dane Jackson stepped into the starting lineup after White went down, but replacing White has proved to be a team effort.

All-Pro safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde and cornerbacks Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson have teamed with Jackson to ensure the pass defense has continued to function at a high level. In the seven games since White was hurt, including last week’s playoff win over the Patriots, the Bills have allowed an average of just 171.3 passing yards per game.

Take out the best and worst performances over that time – the 19 yards allowed to the Patriots on Monday Night Football when New England threw just three times and the 363 yards allowed to Tom Brady and the Patriots – and that average is 163.4 yards.

“I think it shows more the bond that those guys have that even though one of their elite guys went down, that next person said ‘I’ve got your back,’ ” Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins said. “I’m speaking from the outside in, just from seeing how those guys bond in the building. They’re always laughing, they’re always together, they go to dinner, they walk in unison, they talk in unison, they do everything in unison. With them, understanding that Tre went down, of course opportunities present themselves. … They had a press conference and they brought Tre’s jersey. It’s more a family thing, where we’re going to pick a brother up and it’s not going to be any hiccup.”

We’ll stop here to point out the Bills haven’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of quarterbacks – not that they need to apologize for who is on their schedule. The challenge Sunday, however, is the biggest one the Bills have faced since White got hurt – Patrick Mahomes and the big, bad Kansas City Chiefs inside a frenzied Arrowhead Stadium in an AFC divisional round playoff game.

“This is a high-powered offense, a top-five offense in our league,” Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “They’ve been a No. 1 offense in our league. So they definitely present challenges for any defense with a quarterback of the caliber of Patrick and the weapons that he has. Not just Travis (Kelce) and Tyreek (Hill), there are weapons galore, and just watching what (Jerick) McKinnon did last (week), that’s another weapon for the offense. ... We’ll have to really be on top of our game to try to slow them down. They are a really good offense for a reason.”

An absence felt

The Buccaneers finished with the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL, and were the only team to pass for at least 300 yards against the Bills’ secondary. Kansas City is the only other team to finish in the top five on Buffalo’s schedule.

In the first meeting against the Chiefs, with White in the lineup, Mahomes threw for 272 yards, but also was intercepted twice, accounting for half of Kansas City’s four turnovers. The likelihood of the Bills’ defense registering that many takeaways again is low, so a team effort from the secondary is going to be required.

“I can tell you we miss Tre out there,” coach Sean McDermott said. “Dane and Levi have done a tremendous job, and I think just overall the guys have come together as a team and played good team defense in Tre's absence.

“I think Levi along with the entire secondary has taken that as a challenge and embraced that challenge. It's never about one guy, whether it's Tre or Levi and I just think about the overall team, the overall unit, in this case, the defense. So we've got to continue to play like that in Tre's absence and take our game to another level.”

Wallace has done that since White got hurt. According to analytics website Pro Football Focus, from Weeks 13 to 18 of the regular season, Wallace allowed just 11 catches on 23 targets, a catch rate of 47.8% that ranks 10th among 70 cornerbacks who played at least 115 cover snaps in that time.

Wallace disputed the idea that there was any kind of an internal challenge after White got hurt.

“I honestly don't think so,” he said. “I think the standard’s just been the standard with and without him. I feel like it's been like that all year, no matter who gets hurt, who's out for a game or who’s out for a play. We work hard to have our starters good, as well as our backups, and everybody has a game plan. There's no hiccups. There's no mistakes. Everyone's still playing at a high level. That's just the standard when you come to play Buffalo football.”

After the Bills beat the Jets in Week 18, Hyde brought White’s jersey to the podium for a postgame press conference attended by the entire secondary – a way of reminding everyone that even though White is hurt, he’s still involved in what the Bills are doing on defense.

Tuesday, White texted Poyer – at 10:17 p.m.

“I mean, this is the relationship we have,” Poyer said. “He said,`Hey, we got to go crazy. Best in the world.' We just continue to just pump each other up. We take a lot of responsibility, especially since Tre'Davious left, on making sure in the back end that we're all communicating, were executing at a high level. We're always getting the guys together watching extra tape. … We love that responsibility. We love that pressure.

"With Tre'Davious down, a lot of guys have stepped into bigger roles, too. Levi Wallace, Dane Jackson, those guys stepped in huge roles for us since Tre's gone down, so it's a combined effort. It's not just like Micah and I. It's a combined effort of our (defensive) backs, just continuing to work, watching tape all the time together.”

The Bills finished the regular season tied for third in the NFL with 19 interceptions. Just one of those came from White. Poyer and Hyde each had five, while Wallace had two and and Taron Johnson had one.

“The secondary is a special unit. Every last person in that secondary unit, group, room – whatever you call it – they’re special,” Dawkins said. “Of course, I gotta speak about Micah. Micah is a special player, Poyer is a special player. Levi is extremely special. Taron, all those boys do what they do well at an extremely high level. Having them on our team, it just gives us the extra boost of energy (knowing) the air battle is going to be secure. In this league, it’s a passing league so when you have guys that can make a passing league harder for every opposing quarterback, it’s a good deal.”

Weapons galore

To continue their march toward what they hope is the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship, the Bills’ secondary faces an unenviable task – figuring out a way to slow Mahomes.

Kansas City’s star quarterback is coming off a scintillating performance in the wild-card round against Pittsburgh, as he threw for 404 yards and five touchdowns in a 42-21 win.

“Pat is obviously up there with some of the best quarterbacks in the league,” Poyer said. “It's a really good offense. He's got really good players around him. … We understand that when he's on the move, especially finding receivers across the field, we're going to have to execute at a high level, and play our best football.”

Mahomes’ favorite targets are well known to Bills fans by this point. Kelce had five catches for 108 yards and a touchdown last week against the Steelers, and even threw for another touchdown. Kelce torched the Bills in last year’s AFC Championship Game, finishing with 13 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

Hill, meanwhile, had a mind-boggling nine catches for 172 yards in that game.

“He’s one of those guys that run after the catch, that ‘YAC’ (yards after catch) that people talk about all of the time, he can turn a 3-yard hitch or a 5-yard slant into an 80-yard completion,” Frazier said. “He presents all kinds of problems.”

The Chiefs have targeted Hill a bit more underneath than in the past, but he still has more than enough speed to crush defenses over the top, too.

“You’ve got to protect yourself and you’ve just got to find a way to tackle him,” Frazier said. “He’s a heckuva runner after he catches the football going back to his punt return days and we’ve got to do a good job of trying to slow him down.”

While Kelce and Hill understandably get most of the attention from opposing teams, Kansas City has other weapons. Receiver Byron Pringle finished the year with 42 catches for 568 yards and five touchdowns. He scored twice last week against the Steelers. Demarcus Robinson had 25 catches for 264 yards and three touchdowns.

"(Pringle is a crafty dude,” Wallace said. “He really is. Even just looking at the game last week, he had a double move in the red area. What is he, the kick returner? He's got some speed, too. It's just hard for a guy like that to get the recognition that he deserves, but he's a really good player. Even Robinson, those guys are pretty good, and they don't get a lot of credit because they're behind two of some of the best players in the league, but those guys definitely deserve it."

The challenge of stopping the Chiefs extends beyond the secondary, too. McKinnon, a running back, led the team with six catches against Pittsburgh, accounting for 81 yards. He also rushed a dozen times for 61 yards.

“It's tough. It really is. I mean, you got some small guys, but you also got other big guys, big guys that can run,” Hyde said of the challenge awaiting the Bills’ secondary. “It's dynamic guys all over the place. Every team is a challenge when you go out there each and every week.

“As far as the Kansas City Chiefs, the quarterback to the weapons that they have, you got to find a way to contain them. And I think that, you know, you can't stop it. It's clear, you turn on the film, you can't stop everything. They're going to get some yards, they're going to get some points, but I guess it's on you to kind of bend don't break. Try to make them turn the ball over and put your offense in good position.”

The Bills did that in their Week 5 win, holding Mahomes to just one completion of 20-plus yards. To do that again, the Bills will need their best tackling performance of the season against the team that led the league in yards after catch.

“Every time we play these guys, the play happens and there's a whole ’nother play after it,” Hyde said. “You've got to find the receivers, you got to find the tight ends, you got to find the backs and you got to have eyes on the quarterback. Guys up front (have) to try to prevent them from getting anything downfield.

"These guys, they can literally score on any single play. Like, you put on the film from the last couple of years, you can see these guys can score on any play, so you have to really just hone in on plastering the receivers and tight ends and backs and try to force every single throw for Mahomes to be a contested throw.”

A hostile environment

It would be easy to rue the fact the Bills had to travel for this game. Buffalo went 0-5 in one-score games this season, and if even one of those results went the other way, Buffalo would have had home-field advantage. Instead, they’ll make their third trip to Arrowhead Stadium in a year.

“I think as competitors, that we all are, we love all games. We love the Bills Mafia. But at this point wherever we go, the Bills Mafia always follows us,” Hyde said. “So that's No. 1. No. 2, it's kind of cool playing in front of an away crowd, because you know you're in enemy territory. You got your boys with you, who you've been with all year, facing adversity. It's another challenge. So it's kind of cool playing at home in a way, but Bills Mafia travels in waves. So they're going to be loud. … We've been facing adversity all year and just trying to come out of it and get a win no matter what way, it doesn't matter. Just try to get a win. And that's what we're looking forward to.”

The Bills were 5-3 away from home this season, while the Chiefs lost just twice at home – back-to-back to the Chargers and Bills early in the year.

It feels fitting in a way that the postseason road again goes through Kansas City. As Ric Flair says, "To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man."

“We don't want to have that feeling that we had there last year,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “We know our season ended there last year, and now we have to do everything in our power to put our foot forward and make sure that it doesn't end there this year. And that's our main goal is to go out there and win one game, as it is theirs. But again, it's two really good football teams going at it. And I'm sure they're excited for the opportunities, as we are. Not many teams are playing this late in the season so to be playing meaningful games like this in January, it's all you can ask for."

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