Expert Analysis


9 min read

What's Holding The Buffalo Bills Back From Surpassing the Chiefs?

Quarterback Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills again were stymied by the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs on Jan. 22, 2024. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Every meeting between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs is a reminder of how slim the NFL's margins are. 

  • 13 seconds in the 2021 Divisional Round. 
  • Kadarius Toney's offside penalty earlier this season. 
  • Josh Allen's narrow miss for a go-ahead touchdown and Tyler Bass' ensuing wide right knuckleball that failed to tie the game on Sunday night. 

Those are the realities when it's good on good, titan vs. titan. The game can slip away in an instant. 

The Bills continue to land on the wrong side of the margins when these meetings matter most. It's not that they can't beat the Chiefs. The Bills and the Chiefs have split their last six meetings with three wins apiece.

Clearly, this Bills team can beat the Chiefs, just never in January. All three of the Bills' wins against the Chiefs during that span came in the regular season; all three losses were in the playoffs. 

DateReg. Season/Playoff Rd.LocationWinner
Jan. 24, 2021AFC ChampionshipKansas CityChiefs, 38-24
Oct. 10, 2021Regular seasonKansas CityBills, 38-20
Jan. 23, 2022AFC Divisional RoundKansas CityChiefs, 42-36 (OT)
Oct. 16, 2022Regular seasonKansas CityBills, 24-20
Dec. 10, 2023Regular seasonKansas CityBills, 20-17
Jan. 21, 2024AFC Divisional RoundBuffaloChiefs, 24-17

There might not be anything that intrinsically gives the Chiefs a big-brother advantage against the Bills in big moments, but the results bear it out time and time again. The Bills steal one in the regular season, and the Chiefs put them in their place when they meet in the playoffs. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. 

A drama so formulaic almost necessitates there's some sort of through line, something consistently wrong with the Bills preventing them from getting over the hump. We love to tell ourselves stories like that to simplify an otherwise complicated sport. Doing so would make for such a convenient explanation for this unending series of tragedies. 

That's just not the reality of Buffalo's nightmare. It's always something different, a new and inventive disaster that strikes them down no matter how hard they try or change their stripes. 

Is there more Josh Allen Could Do?

The quarterback is the easiest place to start for any team stuck in this death loop, but Allen isn't remotely the Bills' inhibitor. He's the driving force that gets them into these games in the first place. He's one of a small handful of quarterbacks who can reliably go punch for punch with Patrick Mahomes. 

Allen's performance in the "13 Seconds Game" hardly needs to be recounted. That quarterback duel will be etched into the minds of the NFL community forever. Allen was every bit as good as Mahomes in that game, so much so the league changed its postseason overtime rules to allow both teams to touch the ball explicitly because the world deserved to see Allen get one more chance. 

It wasn't as obvious this time around, but Allen was on his A-game again in the divisional round. You can look at Allen's 4.8 yards per attempt and decide he didn't do enough, but that misses so much of what Allen was forced to do and all the missed opportunities that befell him. 

The Bills asked Allen to drop back time and time again without a receiving corps that could win down the field. Gabe Davis was out of the lineup, Stefon Diggs hasn't been himself for the better part of three months, and Khalil Shakir's usefulness generally wanes the further he is from the line of scrimmage. 

All the Bills offense was prepared to do was grip it and rip it underneath, and Allen largely did that to great success. 

Buffalo couldn't execute when Allen wanted to throw down the field on the final drive.

Allen's 60-plus yard bomb to Diggs to open the series was as beautiful a deep ball as you will ever see, only for Diggs to half-heartedly attack the ball in the air and let it hit the cold grass.

Diggs, at any point in his career before this November, probably catches that ball. But he did not have that play in him this time.

Even on the missed touchdown throw to Shakir at the end of that drive, Allen doesn't deserve as much of the blame as he continues to get. Some insist Allen should have checked the ball down to Diggs to burn more clock; others wish Allen would have moved up in the pocket to avoid the left tackle being shoved into his lap. 

I don't agree.

One, points are always good. Two, the only thing sliding up in the pocket does for Allen in this instance is invite Chris Jones to swim inside and disrupt the throw anyway. 

Allen needed to get the ball out at that time and to that receiver to give the Bills the lead. He got hit as the ball was coming out and couldn't connect. It happens. Gamers game, and sometimes the game gets you back. 

So the dagger is ...

But if it's not the quarterback, surely it has to be something else. The Bills can not just keep losing these games with this quarterback unless they have a fatal flaw … right? 

Think back to the 2021 Bills team, the one that lost the 13 Seconds Game. 

Allen was hitting his stride in his second year as an MVP-caliber quarterback. He didn't have the support of a serious run game yet, an issue that plagued this era of Bills football, but he did have Diggs playing at a high level. Those two could iso ball their way to a win at any time. 

Defensively, the Bills were one of the best teams in the league purely through fundamentals. They rolled out in nickel personnel every snap, played the same handful of sound zone coverages, and bet their players would win through discipline and proper tackling. 

It was a simple approach, but at the time, they had a deep pool of young pass-rushers, a strong veteran secondary, and two athletic linebackers. They had the players to keep it simple and win anyway. 

None of that fits the description of the Bills that lost this year, save for Allen still being a cyborg. 

The Bills were incredibly efficient running the ball all year long, and they continued that against the Chiefs. Explosives weren't easy to come by, but the Bills were successful on 65.6 percent of their non-scramble rushing attempts, per TruMedia.

Even if you remove Allen's designed carries, the Bills were still successful on 57.7 percent of their rushes. That's more than 10 percent better than what the league-leading San Francisco 49ers averaged for the season (46.4 percent). Sustaining drives wasn't an issue at all for the Bills. 

Attrition Hamstrung the defense

On defense, they were almost entirely the inverse of the team from 2021. 

That shift started during the offseason when coach Sean McDermott took over play-calling duties after letting go of DC Leslie Frazier. A once-static defense branched out from its predominantly two-high structure.

It wasn't a schematic overhaul from a top-down perspective, but some of the dials were adjusted a little bit to give it new life. A few more blitzes, a few more personnel packages, a little more coverage variety — not enough change to be unrecognizable, but enough to be interesting.

Unfortunately for the Bills, it's a player's game. You need the players to go out and execute at a high level. The Bills' defense just didn't have the horses it used to. 

DE Von Miller barely existed this season. Star LB Matt Milano missed most of the year. CB Tre White went out for the season in October. LB Terrell Bernard also missed this game, as did CB Christian Benford. Even safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, though healthy for this game, aren't at their peak anymore. 

Try as they might, the Bills simply didn't have 11 players who could take on Mahomes with little more than a serious run of injuries to blame for it. Getting this unit to the Divisional Round was already a mini miracle in itself. Asking for any more, especially against Mahomes, was just being greedy. 

Bills Are Chasing a Moving Target

It's so hard to pinpoint what's stopping the Bills from getting past the Chiefs. It's not the quarterback. At least now, it's not the inability to run the ball. Defensively, the Bills might have been outmanned, but at least they didn't lose by rolling out as bland of a defensive formula as they had against the Chiefs in years past. 

It's something different every time, a moving target the Bills can never seem to zero in on no matter how they try to adapt and evolve. 

Nobody wants to hear that. All it does is drive the knife in even further, knowing there isn't one fix that will put an end to this recurring nightmare. There's no solace in knowing you have an alien at quarterback or built the team the right way or made the right changes only for none of it to amount to anything different in the end. 

The only thing the Bills can do is try, try again. Rejuvenate the defense with younger players, reinvest in the receiving corps and make the evolutionary changes to keep the scheme on both sides of the ball fresh. Do everything you can to give this another shot. 

Maybe another fruitless pursuit to that end breaks them. Perhaps next year they finally break through the wall. The Bills just need this cycle to end one way or another.