Watch the Baltimore Ravens host the Los Angeles Rams from 5pm (kickoff at 6pm) live on Sky Sports NFL this Sunday, followed by the Buffalo Bills at the Kansas City Chiefs at 9.25pm and the Dallas Cowboys against the Philadelphia Eagles in Sunday Night Football
Sunday 10 December 2023 09:41, UK
It's here, and it's imperfectly perfect. The NFL saw its San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles rematch, and raised itself a Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs showdown for good measure.
All is not rosy in the land of the mighty. The defending champion Chiefs have been marred by drops and deficiencies on a limping offense, behind which Patrick Mahomes and Steve Spagnuolo's defensive subterfuge have between them retained some level of serious contention, with question marks over an 8-4 team speaking volumes as to the self-imposed expectations in Arrowhead.
And in western New York the Bills are fighting for their playoff lives as they play catch-up having endured marquee injuries, suffered late heartbreak, fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and slipped behind the pack in what is still deemed a Championship window for under-pressure head coach Sean McDermott and his high-powered team.
Kansas City enter knowing a loss would likely see them fall two games off the coveted No 1 seed in the AFC, while defeat for the Bills would leave them 6-7, staring from the outside in and facing a gruelling final month that includes matchups with the Dallas Cowboys (9-3), a still-dangerous Los Angeles Chargers (despite what their 5-7 record might suggest) and the conference-leading Miami Dolphins (9-3).
It is set up beautifully, even if two monsters of years gone by have shed both a touch of supremacy and sparkle.
Mahomes is still the league's best and most feared quarterback. There is still an argument for Allen being second only to his counterpart - certainly the version of Allen that clubbed the Eagles as the most dangerous player on the field in Buffalo's Week 12 overtime loss. For all the respective struggles encountered by their teams, the two men under center remain as qualified as anybody to patch over weaknesses and supersede the accompanying narratives.
"I've been on a team that was 6-4 and ended up winning the Super Bowl," said Mahomes in the build-up. "We have confidence every week that we're going to find a way to win. Obviously, these last few weeks we've lost a couple, but we still have that mindset."
Thirteen seconds - that is how close the Bills were to eliminating the Chiefs and booking a home AFC Championship Game during the 2021 playoffs. With 1.54 left, Allen put Buffalo ahead in their Divisional Round meeting when he tossed a 27-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Davis before finding Stefon Diggs for the two-point conversion - in reply to which Tyreek Hill skated away for a 64-yard house visit that would restore his side's advantage with 1.02 on the clock.
Buffalo rejoiced - prematurely - at the sight of Davis hauling in another end zone strike from Allen to give the Bills a 36-33 lead with 49 seconds on the clock, only for Mahomes to march downfield and set up Harrison Butker's field goal with 13 seconds left to send it to overtime. The cameras had cut to Allen's family celebrating in the crowd with his Super Bowl dream about to move a monumental step closer. They thought the job was done. Job wasn't done.
The Chiefs won the coin toss, elected to receive and the rest, as they say, is history as Mahomes found Travis Kelce for the game-winner to break Bills hearts. Four lead changes, 25 points in the final two minutes and a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning-likened duel between the league's two finest arms, who between them combined for 707 passing yards and seven touchdowns.
Brian Daboll had spent the best part of a year plotting how best to conquer the Chiefs in a shootout after Buffalo had lost 38-24 to Andy Reid's side in the 2020 AFC Championship Game. It looked for everything like the league's next great quarterback and postseason battle had been ignited, but a fierce arm's race amid conference disparity has since interjected.
Two years removed from their playoff classic, the pair cut the figures of different teams. An oft-overshadowed Chiefs defense, which tends to make itself known down the stretch, has instead taken the reins from the start to lead the charge behind Spagnuolo's disguised coverages and defensive front rotations whereby he tampers with an offensive lineman's assignment familiarity with his mix of different sized-down lineman armed with different traits.
They rank fourth in total yards, sixth in passing, 19th in rushing, third in scoring, 10th in EPA/play and fifth in success rate, Trent McDuffie starring as Spagnuolo's secondary chess piece and a Chris Jones-George Karlaftis tandem crashing pockets up front. The league feared what might become of a Chiefs team that finally pieced together an elite defense, what they didn't bank on was their offense leaning on it to such an extent.
Mahomes has had to contend with dropped catches, separation issues and route misunderstandings within an offense that has struggled to cough up a consistent complement to Kelce, who himself has lacked his usual oomph while also managing to surpass 800 yards. With a flash of Rashee Rice here, a sprinkle of Justin Watson or Kadarius Toney there and the occasional dusting of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Mahomes has spread the ball in search of another friend he can truly trust. He remains in search.
The Chiefs had flourished out of multiple tight-end sets last year as they thrust opponents into a state of limbo over whether they planned on ploughing the way for Isiah Pacheco out of the backfield or breaking out from tight splits into receiver routes. It became their response to zone shells that sought to limit their downfield capabilities, Reid empowering Mahomes to take short-to-intermediate throws underneath with a view to teeing up his deep shot. They have lacked the same synergy in 2023 and so too the same kind of route precision and separation; when the opportunity to let rip has been there, Mahomes has been let down.
He has seen targeted receivers drop 21 passes in 2023, three more than that of any other quarterback in the league, while Mahomes himself has thrown 10 interceptions, three shy of his career-worst 13, as pilot to a team that has dropped three of its last five games. Reid, as he has maintained all year, is resisting any temptation to worry.
"This league is crazy right now; I mean it's week to week," head coach Reid told reporters. "I think we understand that. I mentioned a few weeks ago, when we were in Germany, San Francisco was on a three-game skid, and now they're playing well. Denver, same thing, they're playing well."
The Bills, who have also lost three of their last five, have meanwhile felt the full force of Matt Milano's absence on defense, where they rank 15th in EPA/play and 18th in success rate. Of their six defeats, four have come after giving up a lead in the fourth quarter or overtime while all six have been by six points or fewer. Closing has been a struggle.
Awaiting them is a Chiefs team that has failed to put up 20 points in three straight games, as well as surrendering at least 20 in each of those outings as questions begin to be posed of Spagnuolo's defense and how much longer it can hold the fort for its stuttering attack.
For all that had been made of a stale and predictable-prone offense under Dorsey, the Bills still remain fourth in EPA/play, second in success rate, fourth in total yards and fifth in scoring. Allen, though, has also thrown 13 interceptions and lost three fumbles, he and Mahomes able to relate somewhat as chief influences in a league-wide scramble in recent years to retreat and rotate into high shells in hope of reducing chunk play potential against play-extending big-armed quarterbacks.
With a Mahomes, a Kelce and a Reid, the Chiefs managed to survive the loss of the league's most effective field-flipper in Hill to win a Super Bowl, the success of which has since relaxed pressure on the shortage of proven receiving talent outside of their star tight end. Buffalo had similarly become guilty of not bolstering their threat outside of Stefon Diggs, a contrasting void of Super Bowl success instead heightening the pressure.
Buffalo used a first-round draft pick on tight end Dalton Kincaid this year in view of him featuring in a 12-personnel grouping alongside Dawson Knox where the pair could help pave the way for an improved running game through James Cook, give Allen something of his own Kelce-style big-bodied receiver and in turn pave the way for downfield opportunities through Diggs and Davis. Between blocking difficulties and Knox's injury setback, the Bills have fallen shy of the intended consistent balance on offense.
And yet here they are fresh off a bye and, other than a resounding win over the Dolphins, their performance of the season against the Eagles in which Allen embraced his hero tendencies to rush for 81 yards and two scores while throwing for 339 yards and two touchdowns.
Allen leads the league in total touchdowns since 2018 with 257 ahead of Mahomes with 238, while between them they have put up 13 touchdowns and 1,374 passing yards in their last two games. Diggs tops the Bills with 969 yards, while Kelce leads all tight ends on 813. Cook is 10th in the league with 731 rushing yards behind Pacheco's fifth-most 779, while the Bills defense - third in sacks - ranks fifth in pressure rate behind the Chiefs in joint-second (Pro Football Reference stats).
It is a matchup that never disappoints. What can the NFL's two best quarterbacks conjure this time?