There probably wasn’t much the Bills could have done on Sunday to save themselves from the Chiefs. Kansas City’s offense rolled to 439 yards of total offense, 29 first downs, and 38 points; the defense draped the Bills receivers and consistently pressured quarterback Josh Allen; and the Chiefs booked a trip to the Super Bowl with a 38-24 win. Sometimes the best team in football just plays like exactly that—but Buffalo also didn’t maximize its chances of pulling off an upset.
The Bills made questionable decisions on fourth down all game. It’s a tall task to beat Patrick Mahomes and Co., but the one way that will never work is by kicking field goals instead of going for touchdowns. Yet that’s just what the Bills did, taking three points on four drives, even when it was clear that they needed to be more aggressive.
It started early. On the first possession of the game, the Bills put together an impressive 10-play drive that moved the ball 42 yards and into Kansas City territory. But after back-to-back incompletions, the offense faced a fourth-and-3 from the Chiefs’ 33-yard line. This season, the Bills converted 50 percent of third and fourth downs in which they needed exactly 3 yards, well above the NFL’s average. Yet in this situation, they chose to take the points. No one needs a fancy analytics model to see why this decision is questionable against a high-powered offense like that of the Chiefs, but according to one such model—from The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin—the choice to kick the field goal cost the Bills 3.6 percentage points in win probability:
---> BUF (0) @ KC (0) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 24, 2021
BUF has 4th & 3 at the KC 33
Recommendation (STRONG): Go for it (+3.6 WP)
Actual play: T.Bass 51 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-R.Ferguson, Holder-C.Bojorquez. pic.twitter.com/y2qakmciIM
The Bills offense stalled out shortly after that. With the exception of a one-play touchdown drive in which Buffalo recovered a muffed punt at the Chiefs’ 3-yard line, the Bills punted on each of their next three possessions. And one of those punts—on another fourth-and-3—was a missed chance to get aggressive to try to shift the balance of the game.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, had no such offensive sputters. Kansas City scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives and held a 21-9 lead as the second quarter neared its conclusion. That’s when the Bills strung together another impressive sequence—12 plays for 73 yards—before facing a fourth-and-goal from the Chiefs’ 2-yard line. Once again, the Bills tucked their tail between their legs. The decision to kick the field goal here was especially egregious, given the short distance to the end zone and the 12-point deficit. Tyler Bass dutifully booted the ball through the uprights, cutting a two-score deficit to … a two-score deficit.
The Chiefs, who got the ball to begin the second half, netted a questionable field goal of their own—on a fourth-and-3 from Buffalo’s 27-yard line—to begin the third quarter. That meant that the Bills were right back to a 12-point deficit, and they drove the ball 67 yards in 10 plays on their ensuing drive. They then faced a fourth-and-3 from the Kansas City 8-yard line, and like déjà vu, chose once again to kick a field goal. That cost Buffalo only one point in win probability, though that’s partially because the Bills’ chances of winning had dwindled to 15 percent—they didn’t have much left to lose:
---> BUF (12) @ KC (24) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 25, 2021
BUF has 4th & 3 at the KC 8
Recommendation (MEDIUM): Go for it (+1 WP)
Actual play: T.Bass 27 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-R.Ferguson, Holder-C.Bojorquez. pic.twitter.com/5psj7nrRA7
From there, the wheels fell off. The Chiefs scored touchdowns on each of their next two drives, building a 38-21 lead halfway through the fourth quarter. The Bills put up a fight—netting a touchdown of their own and then recovering an onside kick. They even settled for one more field goal, this time on a fourth-and-28, which, sure, anyone would kick it on fourth-and-twenty-eight. But by that point, the game was all but over.
Despite the loss, this was the most successful season for the Bills in nearly 30 years. They went 13-3, won the AFC East, and won two playoff games. Buffalo appears to have a franchise quarterback in Josh Allen, who was the greatest success story in the league in 2020, and features stars on both sides of the ball. This team is primed to compete in the AFC for the foreseeable future. It’s been a generation since the future in Buffalo was this bright.
The loss can’t be too disappointing. It was always going to be a tall order for Buffalo to topple Mahomes and the Chiefs in the AFC championship game. Still, the Bills never really gave themselves a chance.