After dismantling the Pittsburgh Steelers 48-37 in the opening postseason round, the Cleveland Browns were rewarded their first divisional playoff berth since Jan. 7, 1995. While there is definitely cause for moral celebration, Cleveland will not have enough time to take in the moment as they must now face off against the AFC’s first-overall seed in the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium Sunday afternoon at 3:05 p.m. EST.
To start with this divisional preview, let’s look at Cleveland’s roster first, as they will seemingly play the role of David as they face off against the 2020 Lombardi Trophy-hoisting Goliath. When discussing Cleveland, nothing stands out more than their rushing duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who, against the Steelers last weekend, combined for 124 of Cleveland’s 127 rushing yards, and pounded two touchdowns into the end zone as well.
Despite a relatively mortal rushing total when compared to other games (the team’s 127 rushing yards ranked 10th out of their 17 total games up to this point), the passing game cranked it up a notch. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, in his first-ever NFL playoff start, went 21/34 for 263 passing yards and three passing touchdowns. Mayfield’s 115.2 quarterback rating in the game ranked 11th out of 47 combined games the 25-year-old has played in up to this point. The passing prowess was made possible by the likes of wide receiver Jarvis Landry, Chubb and tight end Austin Hooper. Together, the trio solidified the majority of the route tree and combined for 207 of Cleveland’s 263 receiving yards and all three of the passing touchdowns (one apiece).
If any casino regular thought Cleveland’s offense could potentially go off against a weakened Pittsburgh defense, well, it might not have been a huge payoff. On the flip side, if anyone expected Cleveland’s defense to pick up five total turnovers, well, let me know the Powerball and Mega Millions numbers, please and thank you.
Yes, Cleveland’s defense, of all areas, produced relatively positive results during the wild card matchup, as three of Pittsburgh’s first four drives ended in a turnover. Interceptions were the name of the game, as the Browns, despite collecting only 11 picks during the regular season, picked up four against Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. All four came from a different player (Sheldrick Redwine, Sione Takitaki, M.J. Stewart Jr. and Porter Gustin) and were more significant in the fact that Cleveland did not pick a sack during the game.
Then, there is Kansas City. The Andy Reid-captained Chiefs, with Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce at their disposal, did what was expected after winning Super Bowl LIV, as the offense averaged 29.6 points per game during the regular season, sixth among all NFL teams.
While the explosiveness of the passing and receiving area speaks for itself, the rushing game took a small, but significant, step forward. After combining for 1,569 rushing yards on 375 attempts (4.2 rushing yards per attempt), the 2020 rendition of the Chiefs, led by rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire and late-season acquisition Le’Veon Bell, helped bump up the rushing numbers to 1,799 rushing yards on 403 attempts (4.5 rushing yards per attempt). While not a monumental improvement (Kansas City’s rushing yard, attempt and touchdown totals still ranked in the bottom-half among all NFL teams), it further strengthened the play-action passing for Mahomes.
The defense, meanwhile, held their end of the bargain when they took the field. The unit, led by the “Honey Badger” in Tyrann Mathieu (who collected six interceptions during the regular season), along with front-seven stalwarts in Chris Jones and Frank Clark (who combined for 13.5 sacks and 43 quarterback hits), kept opposing offenses honest and alert when they attempted to match the point totals Mahomes and Co. were scoring.
Now comes the verdict. Who comes out on top?
Well, this will definitely be a high-scoring game. For Cleveland to have a chance, the clock will need to be their friend. Chubb and Hunt seams up the middle, with Mayfield-to-Landry slants and go-routes sprinkled in, should give Kansas City’s defense a decent run for its money. The Chiefs, meanwhile, will look to dissect a Browns’ defense that, despite its four total interceptions, still allowed 501 passing yards against Pittsburgh.
Injuries will also need to be taken into account. Two Cleveland starters in offensive tackle Jack Conklin and outside linebacker B.J. Goodson are both questionable for the matchup. The Chiefs are also not immune, as they will be without wide receiver Sammy Watkins and will likely lack Helaire for the game, as well.
Regardless of the health issues, Cleveland will be the underdog once more, and while they were able to skid by a sputtering Steelers’ offense, they will not be able to yield the same yard totals against the Chiefs and expect to win.
While the Browns will certainly put up a good fight, their Cinderella story will end here, as the offense led by Mahomes will simply be too much to hold off for 60 minutes.
Prediction: Cleveland 25 – Kansas City 38