AFC Championship Game Preview? What You Need to Know for Chiefs-Bills on Sunday Night

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The Kansas City Chiefs (2-2) and Buffalo Bills (3-1) meet Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium in a game that some believe will be a second-straight AFC Title game pairing.

The Bills have been dominant on both sides of the ball this year - ranking No. 1 in the league in scoring defense - allowing just 11 points per game, while also scoring 33.5 points per game offensively, which ties them for second-best with the Chiefs.

It’s a balanced team that ranks No. 1 in the league in takeaways, so the margin of error to come away with a primetime victory is as thin as it has been for any other game so far this season for the Chiefs.

We haven’t really seen the Chiefs play “well” yet this season - at least with any kind of consistency offensively, which is saying something considering their numbers are still pretty good, so maybe Sunday night is the night they put it all together.

Here’s some in-depth info on how that could happen:

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Scheme Spotlight

Surviving the Bills’ Empty Attack

The Buffalo Bills run one of the higher rates of “Empty” packages in the NFL. They’ll do it from heavier (21 or 12) personnel) or from ultra light personnel (01 personnel). They’ll also throw it out as part of the hurry-up offense or bring it on first and ten to start a drive. They are going to run it in the game and the Chiefs will have to be prepared for it.

Where Empty Attacks

Theoretically, going into Empty package forces the defense to show their hand. It’s more difficult for players to crowd the line of scrimmage to hide who is blitzing or the coverage shell on the back-end. It also instantly creates horizontal spread for the defense as seen on the clips above.

Despite how dangerous Empty formations look, generally speaking they aren’t trying to attack teams vertically. They are often looking to stretch the defense horizontally through their alignment and the route combination post-snap. Another benefit is the “easy” reads for a QB as even an unblocked blitzer can be easily identified and the ball thrown behind them (see the second clip, even if the LB ended up dropping back into coverage).

Attacking Empty Formations

There are plenty of benefits to running Empty but it’s not a perfect formation or play-call. It does force the defense to show their hand early and give a QB easier reads but it also makes an offense more predictable. There are only so many pass protection calls available when there are only five possible blockers for the offense and only so many routes that can be run off three to five step stems (quicker developing routes).

When an offense tries to challenge more vertically with Empty sets a defense can send disguised or delayed blitzes so as to not alert the QB pre-snap there will be an open hot route. Adding an unsuspecting “coverage” player to the rush plan can easily net unblocked pressures for a defense if the coverage can hold. Another, less risky option is calling stunts along the DL, specifically away from the direction the OL is sliding.

Another way the Chiefs may have to combat the Empty sets if they can’t churn up pressure in the aforementioned ways is to late-rotate defenders down into the box. Playing a lot of Robber coverage against a team going Empty can result in big time success, especially if the QB is anticipating a quick route breaking open and never sees the Safety triggering downhill.

“We haven’t dug ourselves out of the hole yet.” - Patrick Mahomes

The Chiefs went 14-1 with Mahomes at the helm in the regular season last year. We’ve seen two regular season losses in the last three weeks.

Trying to unpack the lack of energy about the most important regular season game of the year — Sunday against the Bills — has been interesting. Is it being stunned by a 2-2 start? Is it because it’s so early?

Are we, as Chiefs fans, numb to the realities of the climb it takes to get to the ultimate goal? Getting to the Super Bowl is harder than the Chiefs have made it look the last couple years. It speaks to the unbelievable standards that have been set by this organization. Their performance has been unrivaled in the era of Mahomes.

Expectations and feelings might be a little different among fans, but it’s far from different within the organization. Those unrealistic expectations externally were built on a process within the building — a way of going about business to sustain success.

The Chiefs are digging themselves out of a hole. And the man leading the effort to retain their AFC title is the best player in the world.

It was a cold, calculated, efficient offensive performance last week against the Eagles as the Chiefs scored on six of seven possessions — with a Mahomes interception (his arm was hit) being the only blemish on the ledger.

Things looked easy. Dare I say, things looked scary. The Chiefs were able to do about anything they wanted — they methodically took whatever the Eagles gave them. They were opportunistic with explosive plays in the pass game, ran the ball with authority, and were efficient in all areas of the field.

That response after dropping two losses on offense was impressive. There are still things to work out on the defensive side of the ball — but if the offense does on Sunday what they put on tape last week, it may not matter what is fixed from this week to last week.

The Chiefs have showed an ability to solve whatever a defense presents them — whatever style a team wants to play, whatever looks they present. If they don’t turn the ball over, a historical offense looks even better.

Expect a statement from this team on Sunday. They’ve been digging all week to get out of the spot they put themselves into — and give themselves a chance to finish the year as the one seed in the AFC.

Yes, the Bills defense has looked great against a bad batch of quarterbacks. They haven’t ran into the juggernaut the Chiefs have put out to this point.

It’s a massive moment for both teams — both in the immediate and as we look towards February.

Matchup to Watch: Ed Oliver & Star Lotulelei vs Chiefs IOL

Last week’s matchup between the Chiefs and the Eagles saw a true test of Kansas City’s brand new offensive line against an excellent interior defensive line duo. This week against the Bills, the interior of the Chiefs offensive line will look to repeat the performance against another terrific defensive tackle combination.

Oliver was a top 10 pick just three years ago, and has really come into his own through four games this year. He looks strong at the point of attack, and has been a penetrative force in the run game as one of Buffalo’s best defenders. While his strength and quickness haven’t quite translated in his pass rush yet this year, he’s still made a serious impact in a good defense.

Lotulelei missed the entire 2020 season, and therefore missed both matchups with the Chiefs. His presence was definitely missed, as the Chiefs were able to run at will without the 315 pounder in the middle of the defense. Thus far, he’s been a force in the middle of the field for this defense, anchoring against double teams and re-setting the line of scrimmage.

The Chiefs young interior offensive line (hey, Joe Thuney is only 28!) has faced a number of tests and have held their own through four games. The run game has helped balance the Kansas City offense and exert its will on the opponent -- something the Chiefs may need to do to kill off the game against Buffalo. Their ability to do so may depend on the strength of Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, and Thuney to move these excellent defensive tackles off the spot.

This might also be the feature of the Chiefs’ gap scheme rushing attack, as they’ve been primarily a zone rushing team this season. However, the Chiefs unveiled more power run game during the regular season last year against the Bills, and could lean on it again with personnel even more suited to the concepts. If the Chiefs’ interior offensive line can take care of another dominant defensive tackle duo this week, the sky may be the limit for this group.