The Bills Learned a Lesson We Already Knew: You Have to Be Aggressive to Beat the Chiefs

Team after team has tried and failed to beat the Chiefs with typical in-game tactics. It should be obvious by now that opponents need to dial up a little extra.
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There have only been eight times in the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes era in which the Chiefs scored fewer than 25 points in a game. Their 38-point performance against Buffalo on Sunday, which helped them advance to their second straight Super Bowl, was the 12th time they’ve scored at least that much in the same time frame.

It’s a tired conversation at this point to discuss what an unstoppable superpower the combination of coach, quarterback and coordinator (Eric Bienemy) have been in Kansas City. We know this. Teams around the NFL approach games against the Chiefs with a strange amount of hopelessness and deference; almost as if it’s better to somehow lose by a smaller margin than it is to exhaust all options in the pursuit of winning.

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The Bills’ performance on Sunday was no doubt spirited. There was something heroic about watching a battered Josh Allen stiff-arm Alex Okafor deep in the fourth quarter, refusing to end the grapple despite the fact that the play had been blown dead (he also proceeded to chuck the ball at Okafor’s head). They recovered an onside kick. They made effort plays. They fought, sometimes in an actual, physical, penalize-able sense. But in a lot of ways, they had already surrendered long before that.

What Sunday’s game should teach the Bills, and any other team that hopes to weather the road to the Super Bowl through the American Football Conference over the next decade, is that their game management mindset should change completely when facing the Chiefs. This is not a typical NFL team and thus, you should not manage it like a typical NFL game. Field goals, like the four Buffalo made on Sunday (including attempts from the Kansas City eight- and two-yard lines, respectively), should be tossed out the window. Your standard fourth-down metrics should be doused in lighter fluid and tossed in the fire pit.

Back in 2019, in a game against the Chiefs, the Ravens went for two-point conversions on almost all of their touchdowns. John Harbaugh attempted four fourth-down conversions. The Ravens lost that game by five points and, perhaps, saw any intellectual momentum for this to become the norm against Reid and Mahomes burn out. There is nothing the take your points crowd likes more than a chance to repeat this tired platitude and Harbaugh, in a moment of bravery, handed it to them on a silver platter. Had Baltimore won that game by a slim margin, there is a good chance this burn the boats strategy against the Chiefs would be so routinely acceptable in NFL circles that even Terry Bradshaw might stop simply suggesting to slow the ball down to keep Mahomes off the field as the preferred strategy.

“It wasn’t a field-position game. It was a possession game,” Harbugh told reporters at the time. “And making the most of each possession was what counted and that’s what we were attempting to do and for the most part we did a really good job of it.”

Harbaugh and his talented analytics staff were right, despite the fact that they lost. When you are facing an offense that is significantly more potent than yours, you should be going for two after every score. You should not assume that your defense will somehow be the one team to slow them down enough and that field goals can win the game. You should be the closest thing the NFL has to Kevin Kelly, the high school football coach who never punts. Every play and decision should be made in an effort to steal possessions and points.

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The obvious retort is that coming into Sunday, the Bills had actually scored more than Kansas City did this year. That’s true. Both teams had 40 passing touchdowns, but the Bills had 16 rushing touchdowns and Kansas City only 13. The Bills actually had a higher percentage of their drives this year end in a score. Buffalo also has a brilliant offensive coordinator who can create situational mismatches better than almost any play-caller in the league, save for maybe Reid himself. In terms of offensive efficiency data, the Chiefs and Bills were neck and neck all season. So it’s fair to assume that Buffalo did not see itself as completely overmatched and desperate for points at the outset. At the same time, these strengths should have made the Bills more willing to remove the figurative governor switch restricting their ability to take chances throughout the night.

Once the parameters of the game changed, so should have Sean McDermott’s entire philosophy. Every time the Chiefs make an offense pay for sitting on its hands, the decision compounds as the clock winds down and a team’s given winning percentage slips away. Edj sports calculated, for example, that a troika of conservative fourth-down decisions cost the Bills an almost 8% chance of winning the game. This, after an aggressive fourth-down call early in the game actually swung their Game Winning Chance model almost 6% in Buffalo’s favor.

Here’s the sobering reality of facing Reid, Mahomes and Bienemy: You’re probably going to lose. Only 11 teams have beaten them since 2018, as opposed to the 44 who have tried and failed. Did any of the 44 teams who failed to beat the Chiefs earn any extra credit toward a playoff appearance by keeping the score close and taking their points?

At some point, teams will tire of the strange deference and begin unloading all they have on the greatest modern offense we’ve seen since the turn of the millennium. Until then, it seems close enough will remain some kind of bizarre consolation prize.