KANSAS CITY—You come to write about Allen-Mahomes, and to see if Josh Allen could bury the vivid, bitter memory of last January’s playoff debacle here and stake the Buffalo claim as the best team in football, and of course that’s the story of the day, of the week, of the month in the NFL.
But there’s something else that happened in the 3 hours and 10 minutes of this tight duel. Something significant. In the four previous meetings between these great quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes and the Andy Reid offense averaged 32 points a game. In their 10 drives Sunday, everything Mahomes did was a struggle. Nothing was easy.
You realize it was a struggle because of the difference Von Miller made in his 46 snaps on the field. Miller wrecked Kansas City’s last three drives with play reminiscent of his Super Bowl MVP performance terrorizing Cam Newton seven years ago. First a tackle of a scrambling Mahomes from behind, then a third-down sack, and finally a pressure leading to the game-ending interception.
“Games like this one, this is why I came here,” said Miller, 33 going on 23, weary but happy, walking down the narrow hall to the Bills’ locker room after the game.
Buffalo is so much better on big stages because of a fearsome defensive front led by Miller. And because of his influence in cramped locker rooms like this one. “He’s my mentor,” defensive end Greg Rousseau said.
This from star linebacker Matt Milano: “Guys want to be like him. Von’s inspiring.”
Just about then, as the buzz in the Buffalo locker room began to die down, Miller had a moment with one of the heroes of the day. Cornerback Taron Johnson benefited from the Miller pressure on his game-sealing interception with 51 seconds left, and he was still beaming about it when Miller reminded him of one of his points of emphasis.
“Hey,” Miller, from the stool at his locker, said to Johnson, a few feet away. “Remember what I told you?”
“Don’t blink,” Johnson said
“That’s right,” Miller said. “We don’t blink.”
Buffalo 24, Kansas City 20, and it was closer than that.
“Millimeters,” Josh Allen said.
"Taron Johnson with the THEFT!!!"
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) October 16, 2022
These two teams just seem destined to meet again. Kansas City and Buffalo have met in October of three straight regular seasons, and in late January in two straight playoffs, and please, please, please, let there be a third straight playoff game this January.
“This is Josh and Pat’s league,” said Jordan Palmer, the offseason quarterback tutor for quarterbacks including Allen, and a major admirer of Mahomes. “They are established, bonafide superstars in the league, and neither is 28 yet. They’re becoming a rivalry like Brady and Manning was.”
I’d say they’re there. Allen, 26, started his 67th game Sunday. Mahomes, 27, started his 69th. Mahomes leads the rivalry 3-2. (Tom Brady won the head-to-head with Peyton Manning, 10-6.)
Game recognizes game. You know what the most interesting crowd reaction from the 73,586 in Arrowhead Stadium Sunday was? It came with 9:49 left in the fourth quarter. Kansas City kicker Harrison Butker booted a 44-yard field goal to give the home team a 20-17 lead. From the crowd came a noise that was, well … polite applause.
Seriously. This game had ping-ponged from 0-0 after one quarter to 3-0 to 7-3 to 10-7 to 10-10 to 17-10 to 17-17, and you’d think taking a lead in the fourth quarter in such a tight game would mean joy to a crowd that year after year leads the AFC in decibels. But no. I’ll guess why: The Kansas City fans respect Allen so much that they knew handing the ball to him with nine minutes left was a recipe for either danger or disaster.
Buffalo went four-and-out, though, on the ensuing series. Kansas City went three-and-out, capped by Miller’s second sack of the day. So Buffalo got it back at its 24- with 5:31 left. The Bills converted a fourth-and-one at their 33- when Allen burrowed for two. They converted a third-and-two when Allen hit the smooth Stefon Diggs on an out-route for 11, and worked the ball to the KC 14-yard line with 69 seconds left.
There’s a reason I wrote what I consider a “combo lede” in this column. If the Bills won, Allen had to be the story, right? And he was … partially. Von Miller forced his way into the story, though. Without this next play, this column would have been Miller, Miller and more Miller. But there was this throw from Allen that reduced the crowd to sounding funereal. Silent, like no time all day.
It was second-and-12 from the Kansas City 14-yard line with 1:09 left. Allen took a deep drop, to the 23, and he motioned with his left hand to tight end Dawson Knox to move to an open spot, but Knox didn’t see it and … could this be headed for disasterville?
Sitting on an equipment box and waiting for his turn in the press conference room post-game, Allen explained what he saw and what he was trying to do.
“They tried to double Stef [Diggs], and I think the DB just got a little confused because Stef started inside at the snap and went outside [shallow, just off the line],” Allen said. “I was just trying to point Dawson to go inside because there was nobody there. But he went outside and I just kinda took a split second …”
A wide-angle view of the play shows Knox, near the left side of the end zone, blanketed by safety Justin Reid, with safety Deon Bush in the sightline of Allen-to-Knox. And if you slow the replay, you can see Allen motion Knox to the right, like, Get out of the corner—you got space inside.
But what’s not apparent from the first replay is the presence of the safety in the sightline, which made the degree of difficulty of the throw absolutely ridiculous. Allen had a covered tight end in the end zone, with a 6-foot safety about eight yards in front of Knox. Knox didn’t shift inside—he stayed out. Allen threw it anyway. “Josh just threw a dime,” Knox said.
Welcome back Dawson Knox 🔥
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) October 16, 2022
“I did see the safety underneath,” Allen told me. “I just knew I had to get the ball up a little higher. Those are the ones where, I mean, it’s like, millimeters of distance of space that you have when you release the ball.”
Allen put his right hand in front of him, and put his thumb and index finger maybe a quarter-inch apart.
“Just millimeters,” he said.
“Inches,” Knox said.
Allen: “I trusted the throw. I saw how close it was to the DB. Dawson made a hell of a catch. Sometimes you get lucky.”
That’s not luck. That’s greatness.
As with Brady/Manning, Allen/Mahomes can engender the who’s better arguments. In the last 50 years, we’ve seen some good rivalries. But the vagaries of the schedule and the short intersection of great careers have combined to limit what could have been historic rivalries. Terry Bradshaw and Ken Stabler did have five playoff duels, but started against each other in Pittsburgh-Oakland games just twice more. Joe Montana never really had one great rival. Dan Marino and John Elway would have had a great rivalry, but they faced each other just once in the first 15 years of their careers.
Mahomes-Allen could grow to rival Brady-Manning. Brady was 25 and Manning 24 when they first played, in 2001. Their youth and long-term drive helped the rivalry last 15 seasons, till the 2015 playoffs.
Style of play, of course, is far, far different—but in some ways, the relative styles befit the eras of the game. Coaches and GMs a generation ago lusted for pocket quarterbacks. Manning and Brady were perfect stylistically in an age when passers were getting more protection from the league and weren’t sitting-duck targets as much as in the seventies and eighties. That has helped Brady last till 45 and it certainly helped Manning last till 39, when he won his second Super Bowl in his last game.
Mahomes and Allen both are mechanically very sound with plus arms. But as we’ve seen, they can both be circus performers. Peyton Manning never trucked safeties in the open field, as Allen does. “Tackling him is like tackling a defensive end,” KC linebacker Nick Bolton said. Manning never leapt over safeties, as Allen did Sunday on the game-winning drive. Tom Brady never rolled out and evaded four tacklers and threw a set-shot TD pass, as Mahomes can do.
JUKE! HURDLE! JOSH ALLEN IS RIDICULOUS!
— NFL (@NFL) October 16, 2022
One other thing these two teams have: excellent organizations to make sure Allen and Mahomes continue to be surrounded by cap-wise, scouting-smart teams. GMs Brandon Beane of the Bills and Brett Veach of Kansas City know how to keep the windows open around good quarterbacks. They know when to take shots—the way Beane and coach Sean McDermott did with Miller last spring.
The last time Buffalo played here, Kansas City scored 42 points, Mahomes threw for 378 yards and KC ran for 182. It was a defensive debacle. After that game, McDermott remembered something he learned as a young coach on Andy Reid’s staff in Philadelphia: Make sure you’re comfortable with each line, offense and defense.
McDermott and Beane liked their young talent on the defensive front. But they both wanted a horse. “We felt like we needed a player, a marquee player, to help us a little bit there for games like this,” McDermott told me after the game. “Blitzing Patrick Mahomes, that’s been well-publicized is not very effective. So you gotta be able to win with your front four.”
Miller was going to be 33, and the Bills weren’t sure how many snaps per game they’d get out of him. But Beane went all-out. Miller was certain at the start of free-agency he’d stay with the Rams, but Buffalo offered a better guarantee package in its six-year, $120-million offer, and Miller took it. After the game Sunday, he admitted to having some serious buyer’s remorse right away. “So tough leaving LA,” he told me. “Not only L.A. but Aaron Donald, man. I could’ve just rushed with Aaron Donald and Greg Gaines and rode off into the sunset.
“But to come here and have success and win the way we are and have this type of impact on a group of young guys, this is what it’s about. I battled through training camp. I was homesick and L.A.’s not even my home. I was homesick all the way through training camp.”
The craziest thing helped turn the tide: toilet paper.
“Bills Mafia started to make me feel at home when I was battling all that homesickness,” Miller said of the intensely loyal fan group that follows the Bills. “I said something in the media about how we were staying in a dorm in training camp, and the toilet paper was not that great. And Bills Mafia sent me tons and tons and tons of toilet paper. Wipes too! So that made me feel good.”
Right away, he became influential with the young players. He told Greg Rousseau, the 2021 first-round defensive end, that the best way to be an impact defensive player is to play like you’re on offense. “Always be aggressive,” Miller told Rousseau. And Don’t blink became the defensive mantra. Don’t be scared—you’re better than they are. Miller says it every day, over and over.
As I’d expected, McDermott, in the minutes after the game, already had his players pooh-poohing a seminal victory. There was joy in the locker room, but nothing over-the-top.
“How big was this,” I asked Allen, “considering the heartache you went through here last January?”
“It was good,” he said evenly. “Just try to find a way to win a game. That’s all it was.”
In some ways, he’s absolutely right to play it down. The Bills had a very nice win, stamping themselves as the team to beat in the AFC. And they made a great move to making the AFC tournament go through Orchard Park in January. Ask New England how it felt to play a playoff game against the Bills machine in sub-zero wind chill. The home-field edge could be huge for the Bills in three months. But if they don’t make it out of the AFC tournament in January, this win won’t be much salve.
What was proven Sunday is Buffalo now has a difference-maker on defense to make life hard for Mahomes. Buffalo knew it had that guy on offense, and Allen proved it again with the amazing touchdown throw to Knox. But with Miller, Buffalo’s got to be the favorite to get to that elusive fifth Super Bowl. Winning it, we’ll see.