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Bills stay hot in win over Steelers, but Patrick Mahomes is a next-level test

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The Buffalo Bills might have slept their way through the third quarter, but as usual, the hot-and-cold team needed just three quarters of good football to pull off a comfortable 31-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round on Monday.

It shows how dominant the Bills can be when they’re at their best. And yet it also showed how easy it is for them to play below their best. 

Because if they can’t figure out how to stay motivated in the playoffs, then when will they figure it out?

Credit to Mike Tomlin’s squad — the Steelers didn’t let up. They did their best to push Buffalo, which might have thought it could coast in the second half. But when Pittsburgh’s effort got the Steelers back within a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, quarterback Josh Allen slammed the door shut with a touchdown to receiver Khalil Shakir with six minutes left in the game.

Allen finished 21-of-30 for 203 passing yards and three passing touchdowns. He added 74 yards and a rushing touchdown.

Maybe the game taught the Bills a good lesson.

They have a habit of playing down to their opponent. Look at their wins over the Chargers, Patriots and the Dolphins to finish out the season. They all finished within a touchdown of the Bills. 

This kind of performance won’t work next week against the Kansas City Chiefs

More on that in a second.

Against the Steelers, the Bills quickly made it clear just how much better they are, with a 21-point shutout lead at one point during the first half. You knew just how good of a first half they were having when Kaiir Elam managed an interception. Elam, panned as a first-round bust, began the game on the bench and jumped into the game after an injury. But he managed a pick in coverage, beating receiver Diontae Johnson to the spot in the corner of the end zone. And Elam made for an unlikely hero, wiping seven points off the board.

The offense scored on three of its first five drives. The defense didn’t allow any points until the seventh drive by the Steelers. It was a top-to-bottom dominant performance from a team that might just be the most well-rounded group in the NFL.

As good as the Steelers defense has played, they struggled to contain Allen. That was probably their only hope of competing. They needed to make sure Allen looked fallible. But we didn’t see that side of Allen. Yes, he absolutely looked mistake-prone during the regular season, but he finished Monday’s game with zero turnovers. 

When Allen avoids mistakes, the Bills aren’t just dangerous, they’re dominant. 

A Steelers blocked field goal then helped to flip the script of the game. On a Tyler Bass kick with Buffalo up 21-0, the entire Pittsburgh defense collapsed the center of the Bills’ unit. And Montravius Adams managed to get a hand on the football. The Steelers’ Nick Herbig recovered the football, and if he hadn’t struggled to pick it up in the open field, the linebacker might have scooped and scored. 

But the Steelers got seven points anyway. Mason Rudolph and the Steelers offense took advantage of the field position, with Rudolph throwing a touchdown to Johnson. The Steelers QB finished 22-of-39 for 229 passing yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

Surely, Bills fans felt the game was worth the wait after the NFL postponed it a day due to a snow and windstorm Sunday. 

Now you might remember me writing that the Bills “might just be the most well-rounded group.” And I think you still have to put the caveat on it.

They might just be. 

Why?

Well, the real test will come against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. The AFC has run through them since Mahomes took over the starting job. The Bills have spent this past year toiling over why the heck they can’t get to a Super Bowl. 

It caused issues during the offseason, with Stefon Diggs, who finished Monday’s game with seven catches for 52 yards, getting tired of early exits in the postseason. It might have caused the Bills to overthink things during the early season, which led to a 6-6 start and the firing of offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. But in the second half of the season under interim OC Joe Brady, the Bills seemed to figure things out, beating some of the best teams in the NFL in one must-win game after another. And somehow, Buffalo finished at No. 2 in the conference.

But it’s one thing to be hot. It’s another thing to dispatch the defending Super Bowl champs and a quarterback who has already established himself as one of the greatest of all time. But Mahomes might not even be the scariest part of this Kansas City team, whose defense is a top-two unit. It won’t be easy for Allen to log his first postseason win over Mahomes.

That’s right, Allen has never won against the Chiefs in the playoffs. 

Allen knows as well as Jalen Hurts as well as Tom Brady just how difficult Mahomes is to beat in the postseason. Mahomes has the magic of the truly great quarterbacks. He builds leads and refuses to give them up. He’ll find a way to stick around and come back when he can’t start the game with a lead. There’s just no putting him away.

“It’s going to take a team effort,” Alen said postgame when asked what it will take to beat Mahomes and the Chiefs. “They’re playing really good football right now. We know the type of team they have and the type of quarterback they have in Pat. We’re going to need everyone in Bills Mafia to come out and support us.”

The only thing that might be different this time: This will be Mahomes’ first-ever road playoff game. Perhaps a change of scenery for Mahomes will be favorable for the Bills.

But they’ll need more than homefield advantage. It will be a rude awakening on Tuesday morning when the Bills turn from the Steelers’ tape to the Chiefs’.

When the two teams line up against each other on Sunday night, Allen (and Diggs and Bills coach Sean McDermott) will get the chance to get the better of the Chiefs. But they’ll be trying to overcome their little brother syndrome. 

Or else it will be yet another season of Buffalo failing to make a legitimate run. Another year of offseason disappointment. Another year of the same old stuff.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.


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