His Buffalo Bills teammates and coaches couldn’t get off the field fast enough. And that was understandable because only a masochist would want to hang around and watch a team that had just ended his season celebrate a championship he had hoped to win.
But Stefon Diggs seemed in no hurry to make the trek from the sidelines to the showers and the painful offseason that awaited. The Bills All-Pro wide receiver felt compelled to stick around on the field at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. He felt compelled to take it all in.
Yes, it was agonizing watching the confetti flutter down as the Kansas City Chiefs celebrated the 14-point victory that earned them a second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl. But Diggs wanted to make sure that scene from last January was seared in his memory banks. He wanted to be able to call upon it whenever he needed motivation to run an extra sprint, lift an extra weight or catch an extra pass in practice.
And, so, here we are, eight months later, and thanks to those crafty NFL schedule-makers, Diggs and his teammates are going to Kansas City again, with vindication and validation on their minds. The Bills hope to supplant the Chiefs as the AFC standard-bearers. Missouri is known as the “Show Me” state. Well, the Bills need to show us, and, more importantly, themselves they’ve taken that next step.
Since their toe-stubbing loss in the season opener at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo has been on a three-game tear unlike any other in the franchise’s 61-year history, pitching two shut-outs and outscoring its opponents by a ridiculous 118-21 margin. So, what, if those lopsided wins came against Jacoby Brissett, Taylor Heinicke and Davis Mills — three backup quarterbacks who would be hard-pressed to make Buffalo’s practice squad. The Bills need not apologize for their schedule. With the exception of the Steelers game, when Josh Allen appeared to be overly excited, they’ve taken care of business the way champions do. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat. And beat them soundly.
Which brings us to Sunday night’s nationally televised marquee rematch. Many eyes will be on Josh, who reverted to some bad habits in the AFC Championship Game. Though he had 267 passing yards and 88 more on the ground that night, he misfired on 20 passes (including an interception) and was sacked four times for minus-53 yards. Despite the fourth-year quarterback’s protestations this is just another game on the schedule, it’s not. This is a huge litmus test for him, and the Bills.
Though three quarters of the NFL season remains, much is at stake for both teams. At 2-2, the Chiefs are off to a disappointing start. But to keep things in perspective, their opening schedule has been brutal. Facing Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert — three potential Hall of Famers — is vastly more challenging than facing the law-firm-sounding trio of Heinicke, Brissett and Mills. But you have to play the schedule you’re dealt, and the Chiefs have not played theirs well. Their defense ranks near the bottom of the league in several crucial statistical categories, including points allowed and red zone efficiency. So, Allen and the potent Buffalo offense should be able to score often.
Of course, one thing the Chiefs have going for them — and it’s a huge thing — is Patrick Mahomes. Despite a few costly interceptions, he’s off to another MVP start with 14 touchdown passes, including five in last week’s victory in Philadelphia that snapped a two-game losing streak. As his underhand touchdown toss against the Eagles underscored, Mahomes remains a master of improv. He can beat you even when it appears you have everything defensed perfectly. In the regular-season and playoff games between the Bills and Chiefs last season, Mahomes combined for 550 passing yards and five touchdowns. He didn’t throw any interceptions and was sacked just once.
In their post-season wrap-up, both general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott stressed the need for an improved pass rush if the Bills are to dethrone the Chiefs. For the third consecutive year, Buffalo used high draft picks on pass rushers, and it appears those investments are beginning to pay dividends. The Bills have been getting good pressure on opposing QBs, with 12 sacks in four games, and that has contributed to a league-leading 11 takeaways. They’ve also broken up an NFL-best 26 passes, and are only the third team in history with two shutouts in their first four games. Unfortunately, linebacker Matt Milano, who was playing like an All-Pro, had to leave last week’s game with a hamstring injury. His status for Sunday is iffy, and Buffalo also could be without Jordan Poyer and Taron Johnson in the secondary.
Allen’s performance on the big stage will be pivotal. In the two losses to the Chiefs last season, he was off target more than usual and made some bad decisions. He struggled a bit in his first two games this season, but has since completed 72 percent of his throws and has six TD passes and just one pick. He needs to stay calm and not try to do too much. Of course, that’s easier said than done in a game this big.
This also will be a barometer game for McDermott, who will be facing his mentor, Andy Reid. The teacher has gotten the better of the student so far, with two wins in three meetings. A victory by the Bills would give them a two-game advantage over the Chiefs in the all-important race for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. In reality, with a 4-1 record to the Chiefs 2-3 record, they would enjoy a three-game advantage when you factor in the head-to-head tiebreaker. Home field would be an enormous postseason advantage for the Bills, considering they are 2-0 at home and 0-3 on the road in the playoffs under McDermott.
If the road to the Super Bowl winds through Buffalo — like it did during the early 1990s — Diggs might get the opportunity to linger on the field again after an AFC Championship Game. Only this time, he would be able to soak in the joy of victory at Highmark Stadium rather than the agony of defeat in Arrowhead.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.