NFL Divisional Playoffs Sunday: Bills look to end Chiefs reign, Bucs hope to tame Lions

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) and the defending Super Bowl champs visit QB Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills in a Divisional Round showdown in Orchard Park. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) and the defending Super Bowl champs visit QB Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills in a Divisional Round showdown in Orchard Park. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

By James Hicks, The Sports Xchange


In Sunday’s Divisional Round games, precedents will be set. For the first time in franchise history, the Lions will host back-to-back postseason games, as they welcome Baker Mayfield and the NFC South champs Tampa Bay Buccaneers.


For each of the past five seasons, the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC went through Kansas City. Not this year. For the first time in the Patrick Mahomes era, the Chiefs play a road playoff game, traveling to Buffalo to take on the rolling Bills. If this Sunday’s matchup rivals the classic these teams engaged in two years ago, we will be certain of two things: the weather in western New York is a nonfactor and NFL fans across the nation will be immensely entertained. 


Don’t forget to check out our preview of Saturday’s Divisional Round games.


NFC — Tampa Bay (No. 4) at Detroit (No. 1), 3 p.m. ET, NBC


The second Detroit playoff game in as many weeks where two former No. 1 overall picks at quarterback square off. 


Having taken down Matthew Stafford and the Rams, Jared Goff and the Lions host Baker Mayfield and the Bucs. In beating the Rams, Detroit won its first playoff game in 32 years. Tampa handled the Eagles, knocking the defending NFC champs out of the playoffs.


Though they can’t admit it publicly, the Lions are likely quite happy to avoid Philadelphia or the Cowboys, especially the prospects of playing a road game in Dallas. 


Is Tampa an actual threat to Detroit Sunday? So bad were the Eagles in the Wild Card Round that it is hard to say whether the Bucs are on a legitimate upswing. Case in point: Tampa’s defense over the last two games. How much stock can you place in the Bucs shutting out a bad Carolina squad and holding to nine points a Philadelphia team mired in a historic unraveling? 


It would seem that Detroit’s offense is right now leagues above that of Carolina or Philadelphia. But not so fast. Though the Lions scored touchdowns on each of their first three drives against the Rams, they generated only three points thereafter, as the Rams defense made some adjustments and LA’s offense dominated the clock. Everything for Detroit's offense spins off their physical running game. However, the Bucs’ D stacks up well against the run, allowing 95 yard per game on the season, and relinquishing just 42 yards rushing to Philadelphia. 


If the Detroit running game with David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs does make headway, Goff will happily play-action and push the ball downfield. Receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown (110 receiving yards v. Rams) and Josh Reynolds (80) goes up against a Bucs secondary that was one of the league’s worst statistically in 2023, but the pass defense improved in recent games. Sam LaPorta has become a dynamic downfield weapon for Goff, and it will be worth keeping an eye on those instances when the rookie tight end wanders into the vicinity of All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield.


Turnovers could be the great equalizer in this contest — aren't they always? When Goff gives the ball away, he does so in bunches. Of his 12 interceptions this year, seven of them came in just three games. The Bucs finished 2023 with a turnover differential of plus-8, among the best in the NFL, and Winfield, one of the more prolific defensive playmakers in the NFL, seems to force a fumble or intercept a pass every week. 


As do the Lions, Mayfield and the Bucs thrive on big-chunk passing plays. WR Mike Evans’ size and straight-line speed make him one of the game’s most explosive deep threats. Though Evans has had issues with drops — he dropped a beautifully thrown deep ball at the goal line against the Eagles — Mayfield will target the big wideout on multiple deep shots against Lions corners Cameron Sutton and rookie Brian Branch. There should also be opportunities for receivers such as Chris Godwin and TE Cade Otton to work the shallower areas Evans clears out. Otton also dropped a couple of passes against Philadelphia, but he offset those miscues with eight catches for 89 yards. 


But for Mayfield to get the time to challenge Detroit’s secondary, his line must protect him. The pass protection was solid against Philadelphia. This week the obstacle is Aidan Hutchinson, who sacked Stafford twice and generally plays as if his helmet is on fire. The Bucs’ offense is not as committed to the run as Detroit’s is, but if RB Rachaad White gains around the 72 yards he put up against the Eagles, that will help keep Hutchinson and the rest of the Lions front seven from teeing off on Mayfield.


If you are looking for another reason to give the Bucs a chance for an upset, let’s not forget that the Tampa D played Goff and the Lions tough in a 20-6 Week 6 loss that was closer than the score indicated — one Lions touchdown was set up by a turnover deep in Bucs territory. 


But that game was in Tampa. This Divisional Round tilt is at Detroit's Ford Field, where the crowd noise in the win over Los Angeles reached a rather alarming 133 decibels. (This week, LA players told Mayfield, who was on the Rams’ in 2022, that Ford Field on Sunday was the loudest stadium they ever played in.) To put a finer point on it, 133 decibels is the equivalent of Metallica playing inside a jet engine…or something like that. 


That’s enough to convince us to go with the home team and to cover the point spread (6.5). Detroit 27, Tampa Bay 17.



AFC — Kansas City (No. 3) at Buffalo Bills (No. 2), 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS


Because terrible conditions postponed a playoff game in Buffalo last weekend, you probably want to know about the weather for Sunday in Buffalo. A lake-effect snow warning, in an area that contains Orchard Park, predicts the area could receive 1-3 feet of the white stuff through Saturday. As of Friday, it looks as there will not be snowfall during the game, but the difficult conditions could keep the two teams from practicing. 


A second factor to consider when handicapping this game is injuries. Buffalo announced Friday that wide receiver Gabe Davis will not play because of a knee issue. The other side of the ball is even worse. Corner Christian Benford (knee), LB Baylon Spector (back) and S Taylor Rapp (knee) have all been ruled out of Sunday’s game.


Two years ago, the Bills and Chiefs tangled in one of the greatest games in NFL history — a 42-36 overtime win by Kansas City, which saw the two teams score 25 points and exchange leads three times, all within the final two minutes of regulation. A Mahomes-to-Travis Kelce pass in overtime sent the Chiefs to that year’s conference title game.


Two years later, many of the same actors are present but the production has changed. The two offenses are not as incendiary, and their respective pass defenses are among the NFL’s best. In other words, expect this game to resemble more the 20-17 defensive tussle between these two teams in Week 14 (a Bills win) than the offensive pyrotechnics from two years ago.


The Chiefs' defense finished second in the NFL in sacks, the Bills’ fourth. The Chiefs have one of game’s most disruptive forces in DE Chris Jones, while on the opposite side, end George Karlaftis equaled Jones for the team lead in sacks (10.5). Leonard Floyd (10.5 sacks) and Ed Oliver (9) lead a Bills defense that, earlier in the year, overcame season-ending injuries to Pro Bowl players at every level. 


Now the Bills are even thinner thanks to the injury news reported Friday. How will two missing starters in the Buffalo secondary change Andy Reid's game plan for Sunday?


After rookie wideout Rashee Rice's breakout game against the Dolphins (eight catches, 130 yards and a TD catch), Mahomes might look to be more aggressive. The Chiefs persistent struggles on offense this year stemmed in part from needing a threat on the outside to complement Kelce. That Rice might now be that weapon could be a game-changer. 


The Bills fortunes turned in their favor late in 2023 when James Cook and the team’s running game kicked into gear. Josh Allen factors mightily in that ground attack. Outstanding as it is against the pass, the Chiefs defense can be run on. It will be interesting to see if inclement weather and the absence of Davis — the Buffalo wideout had a monster 201 receiving yards and four TDs in that fabled Divisional OT loss — encourages defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to load up on the line of scrimmage and sell out to stop the run, especially the RPOs Allen likes to trigger. 


If not for the injuries, we would be all in on Buffalo ending the Chiefs run of five straight AFC Championship appearances. But those physical setbacks are critical — that and it always seems foolhardy to bet against Mahomes. Kansas City 24, Buffalo 20. 




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