Surging Browns head to Kansas City to take on the top-seeded Chiefs
The Cleveland Browns look for a second straight playoff upset on the road when they take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round on Sunday. The Browns made the most of their first postseason appearance in 18 years last Sunday, but knocking off the defending Super Bowl champs is an entirely different challenge.
Everything went right for Cleveland last week in Pittsburgh, as the Browns recovered a fumbled snap in the end zone on the first play of the game and jumped out to a 28-0 first-quarter lead. The ground game did its part while Baker Mayfield threw three touchdown passes and the defense forced five turnovers in the 48-37 victory over the Steelers. The final numbers are a little deceiving, as Pittsburgh did most of its damage after the game was well in hand.
Kansas City had last weekend off after finishing the regular season with the best record in the NFL (14-2). That includes a Week 17, 38-21 home loss to the Chargers in a game that Chad Henne started in place of Patrick Mahomes, along with many other backups. The Chiefs' other loss this season also came at home, falling 40-32 to Las Vegas back in Week 5. That was followed by a 10-game winning streak that may have reached 11 if Kansas City hadn't already secured the top seed and first-round bye.
The last time these teams met was during the 2018 regular season. The Chiefs beat the Browns 37-21 on the road behind a big game from Mahomes (375 passing yards, 3 TDs) and then-starting running back Kareem Hunt, who accounted for three total scores. Hunt is now in Cleveland sharing the backfield with Nick Chubb. This also will be the first time that these teams will have met in the playoffs.
AFC Divisional Round: Cleveland at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 17 at 3:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -10
Three Things to Watch
Quite simply, Andy Reid is hard to beat off a bye week. Between his time in Philadelphia and Kansas City, he's gone 24-5 after a week off if you include the playoffs. This year, the Chiefs went to Las Vegas after their Week 10 bye and won 35-31 in prime time, getting some payback for the Week 5 home loss to the Raiders. When you give the coach extra time to study your team, he usually comes up with a successful game plan. It could be a bit of a concern that Kansas City has been off for two weeks, essentially, considering all the starters that didn't play in Week 17, so it may take a little bit of time for the offense to find its rhythm. On the other side, the Chiefs are hopeful that the extra rest will benefit them, especially if some injured players are able to return. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle) and Sammy Watkins (calf) are still limited or unable to practice this week, so their status for Sunday is uncertain, at best.
On the other side, you've got a Browns team that has been on the road for six of their last eight weeks and has been dealing with COVID-19 issues. Cleveland will be ready, but will there be any sort of emotional letdown following last week's long-awaited playoff victory against their hated rival? Head coach Kevin Stefanski will certainly be fired up after missing last week's game because of protocols, and cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson plus wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge have all been activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list as well. As of Friday, the only player remaining on the list was Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio.
2. Time of possession
The Browns probably won't win a fast-break game against the Chiefs so they'll need to try and control the clock and dictate the tempo. During the regular season, both of these teams fell in the middle of the league in time of possession — Cleveland 14th at 30:41, with Kansas City just two spots and 32 seconds behind. The Browns are more apt to try and ground it out with Chubb and Hunt, and their effectiveness sets up the play-action passing game.
The Chiefs aren't afraid to take shots down the field, and their running game is a bit of a question mark entering this game because of Edwards-Helaire's ankle injury. Kansas City also has to be careful to not let Cleveland dominate time of possession with its ground game. The Chiefs were 21st this season against the run (122.1 ypg) and gave up more than 150 rushing yards on five different occasions.
3. Will the real Chiefs show up?
Cleveland is going to be pretty close to full strength on defense with Ward off of the reserve/COVID-19 list. But the Browns can be thrown on, as they gave up 31 touchdowns passes with 11 interceptions in the regular season. Kansas City has the league's best record, but its past seven wins have all been by six or fewer points. This is after posting a scoring margin of 15.5 points per game in the first seven victories. The Chiefs' running game has been inconsistent with just two 100-yard efforts from a running back this season, both by Edwards-Helaire within the first six games. Since the last such performance (Week 6), Kansas City as a team is averaging 96 rushing yards per game.
Mahomes' ability and Reid's play-calling can certainly overcome a sputtering run game, but the former hasn't been at his sharpest over the last month either and he's coming off of a two-week layoff of sorts. Collectively, the Chiefs just haven't been clicking on all cylinders lately, and one has to wonder if there will be any sort of residual effect in this game. Or is now the time Kansas City rediscovers its championship form?
Last week I was dead wrong about the Browns and have no problem admitting it. Even the most ardent fan didn't expect that kind of effort from Cleveland. Things get kicked up a notch this week as the upstart Browns get a shot at the defending Super Bowl champions, who will be rested and ready. Andy Reid is hard to beat off a bye week, but Cleveland has the talent to at least make things interesting. The Chiefs move on to the AFC title game in a wild affair.
Prediction: Chiefs 31, Browns 21
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.