AFC Divisional: Kansas City Chiefs vs Cleveland Browns Preview
For the first time in 18 years, the Cleveland Browns are in the playoffs. They finally ended their playoff drought, conquered the demon that was the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card round this past Sunday. Cleveland came out and sucker punched Pittsburgh and never looked back.
As a reward, the Browns now get to travel to Arrowhead Stadium to face the #1 seed 14-2 Kansas City Chiefs this upcoming Sunday afternoon at 2:05pm CT on CBS.
Opening odds for this game have the Chiefs favored at either -9.5 points or -10.0 points, depending on where you look, with the O/U set at 56 total points. This may lead some to suggest that the Kansas City Chiefs will easily handle the Cleveland Browns, but I do not think that will be the case. This game has the potential to surprise some people by this time next week.
Should Kansas City win, they will host a third straight AFC Championship game, which remarkably has never been done before. They would host either the Baltimore Ravens or the Buffalo Bills, whoever wins their matchup this upcoming Saturday night. Should Cleveland win, they will travel to either Baltimore or Buffalo for the AFC Championship game.
This game marks a rematch of Baker Mayfield vs Patrick Mahomes, who both played at Texas Tech at one point in their collegiate careers; Baker for one season before transferring to Oklahoma, Patrick for three years as the starter at Texas Tech. It also marks the rematch of when these two played against one another in a legendary 2016 matchup between OU and TTU. Here are some highlights from that performance that I found on Twitter for your enjoyment.
In addition, this will mark the first time that former NFL rushing champion Kareem Hunt will face his former team since being cut by the Chiefs late in the 2018 season. Hunt says that this week is “personal” for him, even though he made two big mistakes that ultimately ended up causing him to get cut by the Chiefs. Here’s a video of Kareem Hunt’s Instagram live video after the Browns beat the Steelers where he says this week is “personal.”
This game provides tons of different story lines and should prove to be an entertaining matchup. Now I’ll dive into some specific keys for each team if they are to come out of Kanas City with a win next Sunday.
3 Keys to the game for the Cleveland Browns:
- Control the line of scrimmage. Cleveland has the top graded offensive line in all of football. That has been a drastic improvement from last season where it seemed like QB Baker Mayfield was under duress every other snap. Rookie LT Jedrick Willis Jr. and RT Jack Conklin have helped improve the Browns’ offensive line and turn them into one of the most potent rushing attacks across the NFL. With a backfield spearheaded by RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Cleveland boasts an impressive running game and overall offensive attack. If Cleveland is to win, they will need big days from Chubb and Hunt.
- Utilize the play action passing attack. The Browns want to run the ball. The Chiefs know the Browns want to run the ball. That is why I believe Cleveland must find success in play action plays in order to sustain drives and keep Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his defense off-balance. Baker Mayfield has posted an above average season throwing the football, garnering 3,563 passing yards and 26 TDs to 8 INTs while posting a 95.6 passer rating on the season (a passer rating of 100+ is excellent, around 66.7 is “average”), demonstrating that he has become a solid QB for this Cleveland roster. Head Coach Kevin Stefanski has adjusted his offense to make things simple for Baker, and I believe Stefanski and the Cleveland offense must excel in play action in order to beat the Chiefs.
- Generate a consistent pass rush. The Browns defensive unit is not the best in the league, giving up an average of 26.2 points per game during the regular season and allowing about 358 yards per game, so getting a solid pass rush can help swing the tide in their favor. The Browns will be without defensive end Olivier Vernon, who ruptured his Achilles tendon in a Week 17 win vs the Pittsburgh Steelers. Vernon accounted for 27 QB pressures and 9.0 sacks on the season, good for second on the team in both categories behind star DE Myles Garrett. Garrett is going to need some help, but if defensive coordinator Joe Woods can dial up some exotic blitz packages to go along with Garrett and the rest of the Cleveland DL, specifically DT Sheldon Richardson and Adrian Clayborn getting pressure, the Browns have a solid chance to pull off the upset.
3 Keys to the game for the Kansas City Chiefs:
- Establish a pass rush. For the last few weeks, Chiefs fans have been complaining about the lack of pressures/sacks from their defensive line, namely Chris Jones and Frank Clark. Granted, neither played in a Week 17 loss against the Los Angeles Chargers (KC rested many starters), but Jones and Clark seem to have been noticeably quiet. Granted, they were each getting double teamed every once in a while on specific plays throughout the last month or so, but when the Chiefs have that much money tied up in those two players (specifically $189 million between their two contracts combined, including $120.3 million guaranteed) the fans expect a little more production. With plenty of rest over the past several weeks, I expect Jones, Clark, and the rest of the Chiefs defensive line to come out strong against Cleveland. The Chiefs don’t need a consistent pass rush to win this game, but it sure would make life a little bit easier for the Chiefs if they did get a consistent pass rush against this tremendous Browns offensive line.
- Improve Special Teams play. As of late, both Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman have had instances in which they have turned the ball over while fielding punts. Those mistakes cannot be made in the playoffs. I have the utmost confidence in those players to get the job done in the playoffs, but they have to eliminate the silly mistakes. In addition, special teams is what helped swing the momentum in favor of the Chiefs against the Houston Texas last year during the Chiefs’ remarkable 24-0 comeback in the Divisional Round. WR Mecole Hardman had a huge kick return in the second quarter and S Daniel Sorensen stopped a fake punt from Houston as well as forced a fumble on a kickoff, giving the Chiefs the ball deep in Texans territory after both plays. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub will have his bunch ready to go, but the Chiefs need to play well on special teams if they are to come out on top.
- Don’t rely on Patrick Mahomes to do everything. I know what you’re thinking. “Brady, wouldn’t a team with arguably the best QB in the league want to rely on him to make big plays when they need it?” to which I would respond with “absolutely they would want to.” But my point here is that I don’t think the Chiefs should rely on Mahomes to make EVERY single play in this game. Early on, this Chiefs team was very well balanced offensively. In victories over the Chargers, Ravens, and Jets, Mahomes threw for 302, 385, and 416 yards respectively. In a victories over Houston and Buffalo, rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire ran for 138 and 161 yards respectively. This Chiefs team can beat you so many different ways, and I think by not relying on Mahomes to make every play, this Chiefs team becomes more balanced and more unpredictable for Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods to defend against. If the Chiefs can get chunk plays on both the ground and through the air in this game, they will have a high likelihood of winning.
Final thoughts and prediction: I really think this matchup can be intriguing. However, I do like the Chiefs to move the ball, and move it A LOT against this Cleveland defense without Olivier Vernon as I previously mentioned. The Browns could also be without starting CBs Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson, depending on when they return from the COVID-19/Reserve list. I expect both Ward and Johnson to play, but I am uncertain as to how much they will be able to stop the Chiefs passing attack. The biggest thing to watch in this game is the Chiefs defensive line vs the Browns offensive line. If Cleveland is able to control the line of scrimmage, they stand a chance of pulling off the upset. If the Chiefs defensive line is able to match Cleveland’s physicality, then the Chiefs have a good chance to come out with a win. While it is uncertain if Chiefs rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be available for the game, the Chiefs have former All-Pro RB Leveon Bell ready to carry the load in the backfield if need be. With Bell to go along with the likes of Mahomes, Hill, Watkins, and Kelce, I think the Chiefs have just too many weapons for an average at best Browns defense to be able to stop. Give me KC to win 34-20 and move on to the AFC Championship game.
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