The Chiefs came here to the cold and the wind and the rain of upstate New York and they got beat. They were outplayed. Beaten at the line of scrimmage. Outgained by almost a hundred yards.
This is a game the Chiefs have lost dozens of times before, and would’ve lost once more if not for three stubborn factors in their favor:
Turnovers, defense and Andy Reid.
The turnovers and defense gave the Chiefs a chance, but this was an impossible win without one of the NFL’s better coaches. Reid has a deserved reputation as one of the top five or so play callers in the league, and without that skill, there is no way the Chiefs could’ve beaten the Bills 17-13 here on Sunday.
“He’s done it all year,” quarterback Alex Smith says. “Done it all year. Takes such pride in that. He puts a lot on his plate as a coach.”
The Bills are a potential playoff team, even still, and have one of the sport’s best defensive fronts. They had a bye week, and by all appearances used it well to figure out how to diminish Jamaal Charles early and all but eliminate Travis Kelce, an emerging star at tight end.
But Reid — and this is so different than the years Chiefs fans watched Romeo Crennel and Todd Haley — gives Kansas City an advantage. There are still gripes about his clock management, and once a season or so he seems to forget how good Charles is, but he just won a game for the Chiefs.
This is why Clark Hunt tripped over himself to meet with Reid in Philadelphia immediately after the 2012 season, and why the owner didn’t mind extending the meeting so long that Reid canceled a scheduled trip to Arizona.
Actually, speaking here just before kickoff, Hunt said that Reid’s skill is part of why he was OK moving a home game to London next year.
The turnovers are straightforward enough. Specifically, Ron Parker — the Chiefs’ best player on Sunday, and it probably wasn’t close — stripped Bills running back Bryce Brown near the goal line in the third quarter. Then in the fourth quarter, Anthony Sherman and Albert Wilson combined to strip Bills punt returner Leodis McKelvin.
And the defense was very good, even accounting for the Bills playing without the dynamic C.J. Spiller, and that star rookie Sammy Watkins was slowed by a groin injury.
Coaches can and do spend an extraordinary amount of time and stress on creating more turnovers than they lose, but in so many ways these things are subject to the shifting winds of a chaotic NFL game.
They also can and do spend an extraordinary amount of time and stress on putting their players in the right positions, and waiting for the exact right time to make the exact right call. Nobody is perfect at this, of course. But few are better at it than Reid.
“When you have a mastermind that knows what the defense is going to do, you have to like it,” receiver Dwayne Bowe says. “He knows exactly what to do. He knows the game, man. He’s been aorund.”
At least with the first watch of this game, Reid’s play-calling stood out in three specific moments. They all happened in the fourth quarter. Let’s do them in order.
With 13:39 left, the Chiefs trailed by 10 and faced fourth and 1 at Buffalo’s 39. They had not come back from a deficit this big all season, and their offense was running like a lemon. To this point, the Chiefs had gained all of 182 yards. The Bills have a ferocious defensive front that was taking advantage of the Chiefs’ offensive linemen, and keying particularly on Charles.
Reid decided to go for it on fourth down, and it’s hard to imagine the Chiefs having a chance to win if they failed to convert here. He called a bit of a trick play, sending the linemen and fullback Sherman to the right as if the Chiefs would run a power play behind the guard and tackle.
Except the play called for Smith to turn his shoulder and pitch the opposite direction to Charles, who sprinted away from the fooled defensive end and through the second level of a fast, aggressive defense that was caught out of position.
Charles scored the Chiefs’ first touchdown, without being touched, and without even making much of a move. A slight change of direction, then straight ahead to the end zone, because his coach called the right play.
“They were all up in there, getting ready to stop a short-yardage play,” Reid says. “We ended up taking it outside.”
Reid and the Chiefs got their next chance two drives later, taking over at the Buffalo 26 after the fumble on the punt return. A run by Charles gave the Chiefs first and goal. The Bills’ pass rush was in Smith’s face after about a one-Mississippi count on most plays, and he’d been knocked down regularly. But Reid calls his quarterback “dirty tough,” and leaned on that characteristic — and again the Bills’ tendency to overpursue — by calling a zone read.
Charles headed to the right, and when Smith put the ball in his running back’s belly, Bills defensive end Manny Lawson —the same one who was fooled on the fourth-down play — chased inside. Smith kept the ball, sprinted to the left behind Anthony Fasano’s block and trucked safety Aaron Williams across the goal line. The Chiefs had their first lead, with exactly 9 minutes to play.
From there, the teams traded punts until the Chiefs got the ball at their own 15 with 2:27 left and a four-point lead. One first down, and they could effectively choke out the clock.
So, facing third and 8, the Chiefs gave Smith what’s called a high-low read — multiple options on the same side of the field, in the same “frame” for the quarterback. This simplifies and quickens the read, and is particularly useful against a disruptive pass rush. Smith created a few extra seconds by stepping forward in the pocket. The Bills’ defense had shifted toward the sideline with Dwayne Bowe, who had a very good game, and Kelce came streaking across the middle with a step of separation on safety Da’Norris Searcy.
“Bowe was doing such a great job all game, so the attention went his way, and Alex made a pro move in the pocket to get the ball off,” Kelce says. “I was just out there as the outlet guy.”
After that, the Chiefs ran the ball three times, punted with less than 30 seconds left, and basically just had to stop the desperation, endless-lateral play to win their third road game.
This win doesn’t make their playoff chances any more than losing it would’ve broken, but it does make the rest of a brutal schedule more palatable. If they can sweep the awful Raiders, the Chiefs would need three wins out of games against the Seahawks, Broncos, Cardinals, Steelers and Chargers to clinch a playoff spot. They would probably get in by winning two of those games.
There is a lot of season left to sort all of that out. But the Chiefs are in much better shape after winning here, a game in which they were mostly outplayed but won in the margins in large part because of their coach.