NFL Preview - Kansas City (5-3) at Buffalo (5-3)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - A pair of 5-3 teams in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt meet in Western New York Sunday when the Buffalo Bills play host to the streaking Kansas City Chiefs at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
After an 0-2 start to the season, the Chiefs have won five of six behind steady veteran quarterback Alex Smith, who has completed 120-of-169 passes for 1,235 yards and 10 TDs with a 109.0 passer rating over that span, including four games with 100-plus rating.
The Bills, meanwhile, have turned their fortunes around after making the move from struggling second-year signal caller E.J. Manuel to veteran Kyle Orton, who has won three of his four starts.
Last weekend Smith threw a pair of touchdown passes as Kansas City handed the New York Jets their eighth straight defeat with a 24-10 victory. Smith connected on 21-of-31 passes for 199 yards for the Chiefs, who have won three in a row.
Jamaal Charles carried 20 times for 78 yards and a score for Kansas City, while Travis Kelce and Anthony Fasano each caught a touchdown pass from Smith.
"I think this team has a lot of confidence right now, we feel like we've been playing good football and taking the right steps in the right direction these last few weeks," said Smith. "Every week, you're going out and doing whatever it takes to get a W. They all look different. None of them are the same, but that's the goal, to go out there and compete there."
The Bills also beat the Jets in their last game, a 43-23 drubbing of New York in East Rutherford back on Oct. 26. Orton trumped Smith's performance against "Gang Green" by throwing four touchdown passes despite completing only 10- of-17 passes for 238 yards.
Star rookie receiver Sammy Watkins caught three passes for 157 yards and a score while Anthony Dixon carried the ball 22 times for 44 yards for Buffalo, which lost starters C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson to injuries the week prior against Minnesota.
The Bills defense also forced six turnovers against the Jets.
The Chiefs and Bills have become familiar opponents. The teams have met each of the last six seasons with two of those meetings taking place in Buffalo and four in Kansas City.
Buffalo leads its all-time series with Kansas City by a 23-18-1 margin but the Chiefs won the last encounter, a 23-13 triumph on Nov. 3, 2013 behind two defensive TDs, a Sean Smith 100-yard interception return and a Tamba Hali 11- yard return on a fumble recovery.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Neither team is all that explosive offensively so it's important for each group to be precise and that's where the veteran QBs come into play.
Kansas City is just 21st in the NFL, averaging 338.0 yards per game while the Bills are three notches below that at 326.9 ypg. Each unit does certain things very well, namely running the football for the Chiefs which generally fuels a solid time of possession advantage.
Charles has 435 rushing yards and is second among all AFC backs at 4.5 yards per carry. The dynamic back has 90 yards on the ground on his visit to Buffalo a season ago and he is leaned on to create the tempo for the Chiefs, who are sixth in the league when it comes to holding the football.
"He's so dynamic," fullback Anthony Sherman, who signed a three-year contract extension Wednesday, said of his backfield mate. "Whenever you get the ball in his hands, he's capable of breaking a long one."
The issue when things have gone bad for Kansas City has been turnovers. The Chiefs were the most opportunistic team in football in 2013 but currently have a minus-two turnover margin. The Bills, on the other hand, are an impressive plus-seven, which is fourth best in all of football.
Orton and Co. took a significant hit, though, when both Spiller (collarbone) and Jackson (groin) went down against the Vikings because Dixon has little wiggle and offseason pickup Bryce Brown can't seen to get on the field.
Jackson did return to practice in a limited role his week but his status remains iffy.
"It went OK," Jackson said, according to the Bills' official website. "It was good action. We'll see how it goes. The doctors are still being doctors and being cautious. So I've got to see how things progress throughout the week."
The team has persevered without its top runners largely because Orton is such a valuable presence.
"I don't know yet because it's still such a young season, but I think it's very promising the way he's prepared himself, the way he's handled himself," Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said when discussing his QB.
Things could get even dicier for Orton this week, however, because the dynamic Watkins injured his groin in practice Wednesday. The rookie star will play may not be 100 percent.
Watkins' production has exploded since Orton took over and the former Clemson star has 38 receptions for 590 yards and five touchdowns.
"He's a leader," Watkins said of his QB. "He makes the passes that he needs to make. He knows how to help us out on the field, put us in different areas. That's what we need, a veteran quarterback."
The real strength of each team is on the defensive side of the ball where the Chiefs are ranked fifth overall behind Defensive Player of the Year candidate Justin Houston, who leads the NFL with 12 sacks.
"When we were 0-2, nobody really believed in us. We're 5-3 right now, and pretty sure nobody believes in us," Hali said. "Our goal is to continue to believe in what we're doing and win games."
The Bills, meanwhile, are ranked No. 8 with defensive tackle Marcell Dareus playing at an All-Pro level.
"You can argue that (Buffalo) s one of the best -- if not the best -- defenses in the NFL," Kansas City coach Andy Reid said. "It's a great challenge for (our) offense."
Reid has made stopping the Orton-to-Watkins connection the top priority for his stop unit.
"I've faced Kyle a number of times and I'm sure he's not complaining about having Watkins -- that's a good football player and he's producing," Reid said. "They're one of the top long-ball teams in the NFL, so it'll be a challenge for our secondary."
The steadier of the steady QBs will likely tell the tale of this one.
Smith's teams are 21-1-1 when he starts and records a 100-or-above passer rating, something he's done four times in his past six games. Conversely Orton's knowledge of the game has his teammates buying in and believing the postseason could be reality in Buffalo for the first time since 1999.
"I don't know everything, but I've been around," Orton said. "When you don't have those veterans to show you the way, it's tough on guys. We're getting better. We're preparing better every week and that'll end up paying dividends on the field."
The dividends may slow a bit this week as Charles' presence should take some of the pressure off of Smith.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Chiefs 23, Bills 21
11/09 10:55:31 ET