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Establishing The Pass: How the AFC Championship Will Be Decided Through the Air

By: Ethan Fore

It had to be this way.

The best team in the AFC vs. the hottest team in the AFC. Patrick Mahomes vs. Josh Allen.

In a season defined by ever-changing COVID-19 protocols and endless uncertainty, the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills were the constants in the AFC. It would be impossible to tell the story of the 2020 NFL season without these two teams, as two of the league’s most talented young quarterbacks and best head coaches face off with a trip to Super Bowl LV on the line.

It’s a game that’s fate feels destined to fall onto the shoulders of Allen or Mahomes. And with injury-riddled run games, the two heavyweights will likely rely on their signal-callers even more. But the pieces around them and the defenses on the other side will turn the tide one way or the other.

Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill vs. Bills Secondary

Tyreek Hill is a mismatch for most defensive backs in the NFL because of his electrifying speed and agility. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Is there a wide receiver in the NFL more difficult to guard? With Hill’s blazing speed and electrifying agility, he’s about as tough as they come.

Hill, a 2020 AP All-Pro, paces all Chiefs WRs in routes run and target percentage (Target%), and he converts a burn percentage (Burn%) of 68.7, far better than league average. He also gets open when targeted at a rate of 73.9%. What makes Hill so dynamic and tough to cover is his utilization all over the field. When lined up from the slot, Hill has a Burn% of 72.2 and converts a “big play” at a 37.9% clip, the eighth-best rate among slot receivers with at least 100 routes run.

It will be all-hands-on-deck from the Buffalo secondary to try to contain Hill while also worrying about tight end Travis Kelce and wideouts Mecole Hardman and Sammy Watkins, who should he be available Sunday.

Buffalo Bills All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White (27) is likely going to be tasked with defending fellow All-Pro Tyreek Hill in the AFC Championship. (AP Photo/Justin Edmonds)

As a team, Buffalo allowed the fifth-lowest passer rating to opponents and forced turnovers on 15.3% of drives, the second-best rate in the NFL. Tre’Davious White, also an AP All-Pro, is considered one of the best corners in the game with an open allowed percentage (Open-A%) of 51.7, ranking fifth in the NFL. But White often plays on the outside, while inside corner Taron Johnson has had his struggles containing slot receivers, despite his interception return for a touchdown last week.

In terms of matchups, Hill has won 36.4% of his, just slightly better than average, while being doubled on 26.3% of those matchups. On the flip side, White has an outstanding coverage percentage, successfully covering 87.6% of 97 matchups. Josh Norman has far fewer matchups (13), but has won 12 of them.

One technique the Bills could implement is continuing to bring pressure. Buffalo blitzed at a 30.6% rate, while Mahomes struggled under pressure, converting a well thrown percentage (Well Thrown%) of just 65.6.

In their Week 6 matchup, the Bills did a solid job against Hill, limiting him to just three receptions and 20 receiving yards, his lowest totals in each category all season. But unless lightning strikes twice, Hill is likely to find a way to make an impact on Sunday. Limiting that impact is how Buffalo wins.

Bills WR Stefon Diggs vs. Chiefs CBs Charvarius Ward & Bashaud Breeland

Stefon Diggs #14 and Josh Allen #17 have become one of the NFL’s most dangerous offensive duos in their first year playing together. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

As difficult as Hill is to cover, Diggs was more productive, leading the NFL in targets, receptions and receiving yards. The first-team AP All-Pro helped Allen blossom into one of the best QBs in the entire NFL, as the duo formed one of the most prolific pairings of the 2020 season.

Diggs has converted a Burn% of 70.5 and an Open% of 81.9 on 542 routes run, recording the fourth-highest target percentage in the league. He is the league leader in total burns and has the sixth-most burn yards per route at 3.5. So yeah, Diggs is productive.

Diggs has the 10th best matchup win percentage at 48.4 but was doubled just 16.6% of the time. Breeland and Ward rank near the top in total matchups, successfully covering their man at rates of 85.4% and 83.4%, respectively.

Stefon Diggs makes a catch against Chiefs’ CB Bashaud Breeland. This will likely be a common matchup in the AFC Championship. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

The Chiefs play a lot of man defense – and the second-most Cover 2 Man – as a result of their highly skilled man-coverage corners. They utilize a lot of nickel and dime packages to make up for a linebacker unit that struggles in coverage, as well as implementing brackets to slow down slot receivers, which is a tactic that could very well be used against Cole Beasley and Diggs when he shifts there.

Ward has been one of the NFL’s best cover corners, tallying the fourth-best burn-against percentage (Burn-A%) at 32.7, allowing receivers to get open just 51.9% of the time and conceding a big play at a rate of only 16.6% – the 13th-best mark in the league. Breeland has been almost as effective, allowing a Burn% of 42.9 to receivers and an Open-A% of 51.8. L’Jarius Sneed, an inside corner, also has been solid this season, with a Burn-A% of 41.9 and an Open-A% of 58.1.

In Week 6, Diggs saw a healthy dose of both Ward and Breeland, recording six receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown. But the Chiefs defense limited Allen to his worst game of the season, as he threw for just 122 yards and totaled a passer rating of 73.4. With Diggs and Beasley as Kansas City’s main focus, John Brown, who had four targets but zero receptions in Week 6, could be a difference-maker as well.

But Diggs remains Allen’s favorite and most trusted target, and he’ll be relied on to have a big game. Can Kansas City’s skilled cornerbacks keep him in check?


Data analysis by Greg Gifford and Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads.

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