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Message to rest of NFL: Until Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs are eliminated, they are still the team to beat

Until the Kansas City Chiefs are eliminated, until they are officially out of it and the score reads “FINAL” in all caps, they remain the team to beat in these playoffs.

That was the primary reminder of an entertaining NFL Divisional round: Knocking off the defending champs will be no given. Beating Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes and Steve Spagnuolo will take everything.

It will take everything from Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, even though John Harbaugh’s club will be the hosts.

And it will take everything from the San Francisco 49ers or Detroit Lions, too, if the Chiefs advance to their fourth Super Bowl in five years at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium on Feb. 11.

The Chiefs are not perfect. Of course not. They kept handing the Bills chances to win Sunday’s game in the fourth quarter, and Buffalo just couldn’t close it out.

There was the Mecole Hardman play-call and fumble at the goal line, and the near-interception and failed fumble recovery by the Chiefs’ defense on the Bills’ final drive.

But there was a frightening calm and steadiness to Mahomes’ play and demeanor in this victory, especially on extended plays for 25 and 32-yard gains to Rashee Rice in the first quarter and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the third.

Kansas City’s entire team, which was underwhelming most of the regular season, played this game like they’d been here before. Because they have.

The end result didn’t feel all that different from last year’s 38-35 Chiefs Super Bowl win over the Eagles, when Philadelphia steamrolled to a 24-14 halftime lead but watched as Kansas City made the game-changing plays when it mattered most.

Now in frigid temperatures this January, Mahomes’ Chiefs have stomped the NFL’s second-ranked offense (Miami Dolphins), 26-7, and outscored the league’s sixth-ranked offense (Bills), 27-24.

And while the Ravens’ defense will be a different kind of test in the AFC title game, the Chiefs’ strong running game is a game-changing pairing with Mahomes’ postseason excellence.

The pass-happy Reid called 18 runs to 25 passes on Sunday. Rutgers product Isiah Pacheco averaged 6.5 yards per carry (15 rushes for 97 yards). And the Chiefs averaged a stunning 7.6 yards per carry, running the ball 20 times for 152 yards (removing Mahomes’ four kneel-downs).

Stopping Jackson and Baltimore’s rushing attack obviously is going to be a major problem for Spagnuolo’s Chiefs defense, which allowed 182 yards, 4.7 yards per carry and two TDs to the Bills’ ground game.

Still, Kansas City only allowed seven Bills points in Sunday’s second half, refusing to waver in a hostile environment when Buffalo’s offense was rolling early.

It’s simply impossible to count the Chiefs out until they’re out. And right now, this is bad news for the rest of the field: Reid and Mahomes are very much alive to win their third Super Bowl in five years in a back-to-back run.

WHAT NOW FOR BILLS?

The Buffalo Bills have to be wondering where they turn next.

Coach Sean McDermott and quarterback Josh Allen, 27, have lost in the AFC’s Divisional playoff round in three straight years. They are 0-3 against the Chiefs in the past four postseasons, including Sunday’s loss at home.

Allen’s salary cap hit is scheduled to jump from $18.6 million this year to $47 million next year. And the Bills still don’t have a consistent pass rush to speak of. Von Miller, 34, Brandon Beane’s blockbuster 2022 signing, has been a bust. He’ll count $23.7 million next season, as well.

There are no obvious answers.

Stefon Diggs, 30, who grated over a lack of opportunities in last year’s Divisional loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, dropped a 61-yard Allen bomb at the start of Buffalo’s final drive on Sunday.

Diggs’ cap hit also is scheduled to skyrocket from $14.8 million to $27.8 million in 2024. And wideout Gabe Davis, 24, whom the Bills missed dearly in this game due to an injury, is scheduled to hit free agency.

Maybe a post-June 1 trade of Diggs would help Beane shed some money while also restocking Allen’s weapons and other parts of the roster in the draft.

McDermott, 49, for his part, recovered from a midseason crisis to rattle off five straight wins, an AFC Division title and a home playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

His 73-41 Bills regular season record (.640 win %) from 2017-2023 is beyond impressive. Buffalo has been to the postseason six times in seven years on his watch.

That success, however, is undercut right now by a 5-6 playoff record. He came under fire this season when it became public that he had shockingly cited the 9/11 attacks as an example of teamwork four years ago.

And he called an unthinkable fake punt to Damar Hamlin on 4th and 5 from the Bills’ 30-yard line, down three points, with 12:57 left in Sunday’s game. That mistake should have ended the game, but the Chiefs coughed the ball up right back to Buffalo.

If kicker Tyler Bass hadn’t missed his game-tying field goal attempt wide right – and if Diggs hadn’t dropped that Allen pass – it would be receiving a lot more scrutiny.

Bottom line: It’s not clear where the Bills will turn next, but they might have just squandered their best chance to win a Super Bowl. There’s a good chance this is the beginning of a slide.

Lupica: Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes is the quarterback matchup of our time

The Green Bay Packers have to be sick to their stomachs out-coaching and out-playing the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday but losing anyway. The arrow is pointing up for head coach Matt LaFleur, quarterback Jordan Love, 25, and a young Green Bay roster. But teams have to capitalize when playoff runs are within their grasp. They’re often rare opportunities. And running 12 offensive plays for no points and a killer, game-ending interception in the fourth quarter could haunt both the Packers and Love for some time … Mark our words: the 49ers will not beat the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game if San Francisco receiver Deebo Samuel is not a healthy, active and major factor … It is confusing that DeMeco Ryans’ well-coached Texans defense surrendered 100 yards rushing to the Ravens’ Jackson, even though that was a focal point of the game plan. But it also speaks to how dynamic Jackson is and why he’s about to win his second career MVP award. The Ravens’ offensive possessions in the second half against Houston went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal to break a 10-10 halftime tie wide open to a 34-10 route. And Mike McDonald’s Ravens defense held the Texans scoreless in the second half … Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud, 22, had one of the more impressive rookie QB seasons in recent memory. Thumping the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round, and hanging with the Ravens for a half, seemingly foreshadows deeper runs for Houston in its near future … Impressive final drive by the 49ers’ Brock Purdy to get the win. But it’s hard to look at the remaining QBs – Mahomes, Jackson, Purdy and Jared Goff – and believe that he’ll come out on top, especially with the Niners’ defense looking human … The Lions drafted running back Jahmyr Gibbs No. 12 overall out of Alabama last April, and he was Detroit’s top weapon on the most important drive of their 31-23 Divisional win over the Buccaneers. Tied 17 apiece with 10 seconds to play in the third quarter, here was Detroit’s ensuing offensive drive: Gibbs run for six yards; Goff pass to Gibbs for 12 yards; Goff pass to Josh Reynolds for 18 yards; Gibbs run for eight yards; Gibbs 31-yard touchdown run. That’s four touches, 57 yards and a TD in the clutch. If a team is going to invest in a running back with that kind of draft capital, he has to become that kind of difference-maker immediately. Gibbs did that Sunday … Detroit’s Brad Holmes was my pick for GM of the Year in my Pro Football Writers of America 2023 NFL awards voting, the results of which will be released this week. Holmes and coach Dan Campbell have done an incredible job in the Motor City. Their leadership has the Lions one step away from Super LVIII.