How the thrilling AFC title game can be viewed through the Bills’ lens

Ten things about Sunday night’s AFC championship game as it relates to the Buffalo Bills:

The Bills and the NFL’s other 31 teams gained spending flexibility Monday when the league set the 2023 salary cap at a record $224.8 million.

1. Cincinnati and Kansas City remain atop the conference’s marquee, the two best teams and two best quarterbacks slugging it out. They have played four times in the last two seasons and each game was decided by three points (The Bengals have a 3-1 edge). What we saw Sunday was Joe Burrow make some of the toughest throws (far hash, back shoulder) look routine, and Patrick Mahomes doing things on one healthy ankle that defy science and gravity. Because the Bills were grouped with the Bengals and Chiefs throughout the season, it requires viewing the AFC title game (and the entire AFC playoffs) through a Bills lens.

“Turns out, all the Bills needed last week to beat the Cincinnati Bengals was Chris Jones,” Ryan O’Halloran writes.

2. The most impressive Bengals player in their win over the Bills: Running back Joe Mixon. The most impressive Chiefs player in their win over Cincinnati: Defensive tackle Chris Jones. The Bills don’t have either player of that ilk. Mixon is a powerhouse runner (20 carries for 105 yards against the Bills) who was held in check by Kansas City (eight for 19), but can be counted on to get the hard yards. Can James Cook be that guy for the Bills moving forward? He didn’t get a chance as a rookie – he was 3 of 4 converting third-down plays of 1 to 3 yards (two touchdowns). Jones is a game-wrecker who consistently beat double teams to pressure Burrow. The Bills definitely don’t have one of those players, but few teams do.

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3. The Chiefs dressed eight rookies Sunday … on defense! They used two first-round picks and single selections in rounds 2-4 and 7 to transition their defense on the cheap. But they didn’t forget about their offense. They chose receiver Skyy Moore in the second round (key punt return to set up winning field goal) and running back Isiah Pacheco in the seventh round, and his impact was more noticeable than his statistics. (It does feel like he needs to be more patient in the run game to let his blocks get set up). The Bills should prioritize offense throughout the draft, but particularly a running back on Day 3, a player who has a ton of experience (Pacheco carried 563 times for Rutgers) and can play an immediate role.

Dawson Knox will be making his Pro Bowl debut.

4. Six Chiefs receivers against Cincinnati (seven if you count running back Jerick McKinnon, who is basically a receiver). Kansas City went the by-committee route to replace Tyreek Hill, who was traded to Miami. Including McKinnon, the Chiefs had five players with at least 22 catches in the regular season; the Bills had only three. Granted, Stefon Diggs would be Kansas City’s best receiver, but the playoffs have illustrated the need for the Bills to add at receiver so they aren’t calling John Brown off the NFL unemployment line and Cole Beasley out of retirement to get them to the finish line.

5. The Chiefs won a Super Bowl (and were 1-1 in AFC title games) before Mahomes signed his extension in July 2020, and the Bengals reached a Super Bowl (and are 1-1 in AFC title games) in Burrow’s first three years. This is where the Bills came up short, fully capitalizing on the luxury that is a franchise quarterback’s rookie contract. The bill is about to come due for Cincinnati. Having completed three seasons, Burrow, receiver Tee Higgins and linebacker Logan Wilson are eligible for extensions, followed by receiver Ja’Marr Chase after the 2023 season. Left tackle Jonah Williams is currently on the fifth-year option for ’23. The Bengals have $43.9 million in space per Over The Cap, and they’ll need it.

The personnel usage for the Buffalo Bills stayed similar last season under offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey in 2022.

6. Jacksonville was more competitive in the divisional round, losing 27-20 at Kansas City, than the Bills were in losing at home to Cincinnati (27-10). The Jaguars are in position to take control of the AFC South. Every other team (Houston, Indianapolis and Tennessee) has quarterback problems or overall (Houston and Indianapolis don’t have head coaches) problems. Thing is, the Jaguars are $22 million-plus over the cap and have 12 players with a cap hit of at least $10 million. They will create $13.1 million by cutting cornerback Shaquill Griffin, and about $7 million if they release a few non-starters. I respect the Jaguars for their quick turnaround, but I’m wary of whether they can take a big step forward, leaving the Chiefs, Bengals and Bills as the no-doubt top three.

“I think, statistically, we were eerily similar or, if not, better than what we were last year,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “To come in and to have some of that same group, you can continue to build on that.”

7. Before you raise your pitchforks, I am not comparing future Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Travis Kelce to Bills tight end Dawson Knox. But this is about tight end usage and exploiting zone coverage and the width of the field. Kelce has been targeted at least seven times in 18 of the Chiefs’ 19 games and totaled 177 targets. Knox had only four games of at least seven targets in his 17 games and 77 total. There is no reason why a player like Knox should receive 100 fewer targets than Kelce. Another offseason project for Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey.

8. Where the Chiefs have swung big and connected is on the trade market. They have acquired left tackle Orlando Brown and edge rusher Frank Clark, two of the game’s top four premium positions (along with quarterback and defensive tackle). The Bills’ biggest trade was for Diggs (and it’s worked out), but maybe this is an avenue for general manager Brandon Beane to add a big body to anchor the defensive line or to shake the decks at cornerback, preferably one who can cover Chase and Higgins in man coverage.

Better protection for Josh Allen has to be one of the Buffalo Bills’ top priorities this offseason. Can General Manager Brandon Beane trust that right tackle Spencer Brown will take a big step forward in his development as he enters his third season?

9. (Non-AFC title game thought: Miami has reportedly agreed to hire defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. What a coup for coach Mike McDaniel, who can focus on calling the offensive plays and leave Fangio to run the defense. I am biased from covering Fangio for three years in Denver when he was the Broncos’ head coach/defensive play-caller, but he is the NFL’s best defensive mind, exhibited by how his scheme has spread throughout the league. It will be fascinating to see what Vic has in store for Bills quarterback Josh Allen, particularly in the red zone.)

In a nearly six-minute video, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin gave thanks to everyone who has supported him in his recovery, saying he has been “blown away by the support” he has received.

10. It would be surprising if the Bills don’t open 2023 on the road and in prime time. They are scheduled to play at Philadelphia, at Kansas City and at Cincinnati. If the Eagles win the Super Bowl, I figure they would host the Opening Kickoff game against San Francisco or Dallas. If the Chiefs win, they could host a rematch against Cincinnati or another chapter in the Allen-Mahomes book. But my prediction is ESPN will request – and be granted – Bills-Bengals to be its Monday night lid-lifter.

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