What the Chiefs can learn from rough starts for the Bills and Bengals

How can the Chiefs prevent a step back?
Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens
Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens / Rob Carr/GettyImages
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For the last three years the Kansas City Chiefs, the Buffalo Bills, and the Cincinnati Bengals have been the class of the AFC. The three teams have made up the last three conference championships and have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl for four consecutive years. On the backs of their superstar quarterbacks, the AFC has seemed to run through these three teams.

However, 2023 has been different, after 10 games both the Bills and Bengals have a .500 record. The Chiefs remain the one seed in the conference and the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl. What changed? How have the Chiefs separated themselves from their two closest nemeses over the last few years?

Like most things in life: it's complicated and neither black nor white. All three teams are in the position they've put themselves in over the past few years with coaching, roster construction, and some luck.

It's worth mentioning the life cycle is different for all three of these teams. The Chiefs started Patrick Mahomes in 2018 after a year of sitting behind Alex Smith, effectively starting his valuable "rookie contract window." The Bills drafted Josh Allen a year after Mahomes a threw him into action in his rookie year. Joe Burrow was drafted in 2020 and was the starter day one. Mahomes and Allen are both making "real QB money" while Joe Burrow is still somewhat cost-effective this year.

1. Injuries aren't always random

The biggest factor, without a doubt, for the rough start for both the Bills and the Bengals is injuries. The Bills have lost All-Pro/Pro Bowl-caliber players and other starters all across their defense to injury. The Bengals have had their fair share of injuries on defense as well. A major factor in those injuries? Two defenses that relied heavily upon free agency and aging players. Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, and Von Miller have all been key injuries for the Bills' defense over the past two years. All three players were brought in via free agency and are over 30 years old. Tre'Davious White and Matt Milano are both excellent players on second contracts for the Bills.

The Bengals have made big splashes in free agency over the last few years with names like Vonn Bell, D.J. Reader, Trey Hendrickson, and Chidobe Awuzie. Those players were instrumental in the bounce back of the defense of the Bengals but have missed games due to injury as well. Before Joe Burrow's season ended due to a torn ligament, his calf injury was a major portion of the Bengals' early struggles. The Bengals cornered themselves into playing Burrow through the injury by having an inexperienced backup. By playing him through the injury they may have extended its impact on his play. Similarly, the Bills pushed Josh Allen through his elbow injury in 2022.

There's a definitive element of luck in injuries. However, how teams prepare for those injuries (depth), what players get injured (age), and how they treat the injuries (training staff) is not random. The Chiefs' medical staff has been excellent over this time frame from rehab, treatment, and recovery. It's not always quantifiable how these staffs help their teams but their impact is felt every week.