Notes From A Crumbling NFL Empire: Part XV

Kansas City Chiefs 42, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Photo courtesy of The Kansas City Star

The real revelation in the Chiefs’ 42-21 blowout win on Super Wild Card Weekend was third-string running back Jerick McKinnon. Signed as an afterthought for a mere $990,000 during the offseason, the 29 year-old appeared in 13 games — mostly on special teams — and generated 25 total touches on offense over the course of the season.

On Sunday night, McKinnon rushed 12 times for 61 yards and caught 6 passes for 81 yards and a TD. While it’s possible that I am willing to fall in love with any backup running back who plays for the Chiefs, I don’t think it takes a helluva lot to argue that the way McKinnon performed against the Steelers is the most complete a Kansas City running back has looked since Kareem Hunt screwed up off the field and got released a couple years ago.

Jerick announced his presence most obviously on screen passes, a staple of Andy Reid’s offense that hasn’t felt nearly as effective as it ought to in recent years. For whatever reason, oft-injured starter Clyde Edwards-Elaire either gets stopped for minimal gains on screen plays, or QB Patrick Mahomes simply throws the ball into the dirt because there is nothing there.

McKinnon, a veteran who made a name for himself as a third-round pick for the Vikings in 2014 and later played (briefly) for the 49ers, made the most of his opportunities on screens on Sunday. And I don’t know why, necessarily. It didn’t appear like he was doing anything special, beyond exercising a bit of patience and setting up his blocks. But it was effective. With an offensive line as good as the Chiefs have, and a running back who doesn’t get lost in the wash, screen passes can absolutely a weapon for this offense moving forward.

But McKinnon and screens weren’t the only reason Kansas City’s offense put up 42 points. After a bizarre start that featured two punts and two turnovers in the first 20 or so minutes of game time, Patrick Mahomes had one of his typical blackout performances. He put up five touchdown passes in something like 10 minutes of game action (at the end of the second quarter and into the third), which included a third-and-seven strike to Byron Pringle to make it 14-7, and a third-and-twenty ad-lib bomb to Travis Kelce with like 13 seconds left in the first half to make it 21-7.

The defense did what it had to do. When the game was in doubt they didn’t allow any points. Pittsburgh’s first score of the game occurred on a defensive touchdown, and the Steelers didn’t score again until the Chiefs had put up 35 unanswered points. The final score looked like something of a shootout, but Pittsburgh’s only offensive points took place after they trailed 35-7, and 42-14.

The win sets up an inevitable matchup, one everyone knew was coming, sooner or later, against the Buffalo Bills. It isn’t a game most Chiefs fans are particularly looking forward to — which is reflected in the point spread (KC -1.5) — but I think if you combed through my blog, or polled most football fans during the season, I (or we) would have said one way or another Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen would have to square off.

I actually anticipated it being for the AFC Championship rather than the Divisional Round, but with the Titans weirdly being the top seed and Chiefs-Bills being slotted as the 2- and 3-seed, respectively, the clash of the two most talented teams in the conference comes a week early. The storylines write themselves, so don’t let me get in the way of whatever they are talking about on ESPN or FS1, but to me the most interesting elements involve (a) the Bills winning on Saturday night, giving them an extra day of rest, and (b) the Chiefs getting a chance at payback after losing to Buffalo, 38-20, on their home field in Week 5.

For legacy reasons, it’s a more important game for Allen than it is for Mahomes, given that Allen has never made it beyond the AFC Championship while Mahomes has already been to three of them and two Super Bowls in his first three playoff years. The Bills are really good. They are worthy of knocking the Chiefs out of the playoffs. But as always, I still need to see it before I believe it’s possible. Mahomes is 7-2 all-time in the playoffs, and both of his losses came against Tom Brady. No other quarterback has beaten him when all the chips are down.

It’s for that reason that I think the Chiefs ultimately advance to their fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game. But it’s not like I’ll be surprised if the Bills take their crucial next step. This is easily the best Bills team of the Josh Allen era, and honestly it’s hard to say the same for the Chiefs since Mahomes took over in 2018.

I guess what I’m really saying is if the Bills play their A-game they can win. They probably will win. But if both teams play towards their mean, or below it, the Chiefs will likely walk away with a win in the neighborhood of 7-10 points. They’ve just done this for so long now, playing in and winning the big games, that it’s going to require a standout effort from the other side to take the AFC away from Kansas City.

Come game time I’ll be nervous, I’m sure, but I think I’ll have a hard time being down-in-the-dumps levels of disappointed if Kansas City doesn’t come out on top. Buffalo, like I said, is really fucking good. They have the offensive talent to outscore the Chiefs, and they have a defense that is capable of slowing down Patrick Mahomes.

Since Buffalo plays a zone-heavy scheme, and since they are without arguably their best defensive player — cornerback Tre’Davious White, who tore his ACL earlier in the year — this matchup is going to come down to how much pressure Buffalo’s defensive line is able to generate. If you look at the one achilles heel of the Chiefs since Mahomes took over in 2018, it hasn’t been the defense’s ability to match up with Kansas City’s skill players. (I don’t know if any opposing defense is capable, honestly.)

Instead, it comes down to creating pressure. If the offensive line which the Chiefs dedicated their entire offseason to rebuilding is able to protect their half billion dollar franchise quarterback, the Chiefs will win. If the Bills manage a few sacks, or an errant throw here and there, they can come out on top.

To me, nothing else matters. Josh Allen and the Buffalo offense is going to get theirs. They are going to score anywhere between 25 and 35 points, presumably. From their perspective it isn’t so much about what they do on offense; it’s about what they are able to limit Kansas City from doing on defense.

I can’t wait for the game, even though I’m aware it’s the scariest matchup of the season to this point. I just keep coming back to the idea that the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, and the other team doesn’t. But we’ll see.

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