Ten things about Sunday night’s AFC championship game as it relates to the Buffalo Bills:
The Bills and 31 other NFL teams gained spending flexibility on Monday as the league set its 2023 salary cap at a record $224.8 million.
1. Cincinnati and Kansas City remain at the top of the conference marquee, the two best teams and two best quarterbacks pulling it off. They have played four times in the last two seasons and each game has been decided by three-pointers (the Bengals have a 3-1 lead). What we saw on Sunday was Joe Burrow making some of the harder throws (far hash, back shoulder) look routine and Patrick Mahomes doing things on a healthy ankle that defy science and gravity. Since the Bills have been grouped with the Bengals and Chiefs all season, you need to view the AFC title game (and the entire AFC playoffs) through the Bills lens.
“It turns out all the Bills needed last week to beat the Cincinnati Bengals were Chris Jones,” writes Ryan O’Halloran.
2. Most impressive Bengals player in their win over the Bills: Running back Joe Mixon. The Chiefs’ most impressive player in their win over Cincinnati: defensive tackle Chris Jones. The Bills don’t have any players like that. Mixon is a power 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 tough yards. Can James Cook be that guy for accounts moving forward? He didn’t stand a chance as a rookie: he was 3-of-4 converting third down plays of 1 to 3 yards (two touchdowns). Jones is a play destroyer 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 on Sunday… on defense! They used two first-round picks and single picks in rounds 2-4 and 7 to transfer their defense on the cheap. But they have not forgotten their offense. They drafted receiver Skyy Moore in the second round (key punt return to set up game-winning field goal) and running back Isiah Pacheco in the seventh round, and his impact was more apparent than his stats. (Seems like he needs to be more patient in the running game to let his blocks get set). The Bills should prioritize offense throughout the draft, but especially a running back on Day 3, a player who has tons of experience (Pacheco played 563 times for Rutgers) and can play an immediate role.
Dawson Knox will make 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 committee route to replace Tyreek Hill, who was traded to Miami. Including McKinnon, the Chiefs had five players with at least 22 regular season catches; the Bills only had three. Sure, Stefon Diggs would be Kansas City’s best wide receiver, but the playoffs demonstrated the need for the Bills to add at wide receiver so they don’t call John Brown off the NFL unemployment line and Cole Beasley out of retirement to get them to the finish line. .
5. The Chiefs won one Super Bowl (and were 1-1 in AFC title games) before Mahomes signed his extension in July 2020, and the Bengals reached one Super Bowl (and are 1-1 in games for the AFC title) in Burrow’s first three years. This is where the Bills fell short, taking full advantage of the luxury that is a franchise quarterback’s rookie contract. The bill is running out for Cincinnati. After completing 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 a fifth-year option for the ‘ 23. The Bengals have $43.9 million in space for Over The Cap and they’re going to need it.
Personnel utilization for the Buffalo Bills remained similar last season under offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey in 2022.
6. Jacksonville was more competitive in the divisional round, losing 27-20 in Kansas City, than the Bills lost at home to Cincinnati (27-10). Jaguars are able to take over AFC South. Every other team (Houston, Indianapolis and Tennessee) has problems with quarterbacks or in general (Houston and Indianapolis have no head coaches). Fact is, the Jaguars go over the limit by over $22 million and have 12 players capped at at least $10 million. They will create $13.1 million by cutting cornerback Shaquill Griffin and about $7 million if they release some nonstarters. I respect the Jaguars for their quick turnaround, but I’m wary that they can take a big step forward, leaving the Chiefs, Bengals, and Bills as the top three hands down.
“I think, statistically, we were eerily similar or otherwise better than we were last year,” said quarterback Josh Allen. “To come in and be part of the same group, you can continue to build on that.”
7. Before you raise the pitchforks, I’m not comparing future Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Travis Kelce to Bills tight end Dawson Knox. But it’s all about narrow usage and exploitation of area coverage and field width. Kelce was targeted at least seven times in 18 of the Chiefs’ 19 games and tallied 177 targets. Knox had only four games with at least seven targets in his 17 games and 77 overall. There’s no reason a player like Knox should get 100 fewer targets than Kelce. Another offseason draft for Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey.
8. Where the Chiefs have swung big and connected is on the commercial market. They acquired left tackle Orlando Brown and edge rusher Frank Clark, two of the top four premium positions in the game (along with quarterback and defensive tackle). The Bills biggest trade was for Diggs (and it worked), but perhaps this is an avenue for general manager Brandon Beane to add a big body to anchor the defensive line or to shake decks at the cornerback, preferably one who can cover Chase and Higgins in male cover.
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 in developing him 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 offensive plays and leave Fangio to run the I’m biased against covering for Fangio for three years in Denver when he was head coach/defensive call-up for the Broncos, but he’s the best defensive mind in the NFL, as evidenced by the way his plan has spread across the league. fascinating to see what Vic Shop has in store for Bills quarterback Josh Allen, particularly in the red zone.)
In a nearly six-minute video, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin thanked everyone who supported him in his recovery, saying he was “blown away by the support” he received.
10. It would be surprising if the Bills didn’t open 2023 on the road and in prime time. They are scheduled to play Philadelphia, Kansas City and Cincinnati. If the Eagles win the Super Bowl, I guess they’ll host the opening game against San Francisco or Dallas. If the Chiefs win, they could host a rematch against Cincinnati or another chapter in Allen-Mahomes’ book. But my prediction is that ESPN will demand — and get — that Bills-Bengals be its Monday night lid lifter.
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