The Cleveland Browns can still visualize it: the Kansas City Chiefs on the run. Here they were, the sixth seed in the playoffs, in their first postseason since 2002, and they were on the verge of reaching the AFC Championship Game this past January. Patrick Mahomes was already sidelined for the Chiefs, due to a concussion, when backup Chad Henne was intercepted with eight minutes left.
There Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield stood, 80 yards away from the lead on the road at Arrowhead Stadium. The Browns had scored touchdowns on two straight possessions to pull within 22-17. It was all right there for the taking.
The end result? Seven plays, 12 yards, and a punt. Moments later, Henne was scrambling on a gutsy third-down call by Kansas City head coach Andy Reid, made an impressive pass on fourth down, and sent the Chiefs to their second straight AFC Championship Game.
"Obviously, when you get the ball with momentum starting to swing our way, we were confident that we were going to go out there [and score]," Mayfield said back in January. "They decided to bring a couple of pressures and made the plays, and we did not.
"It sucks because we believed in it … it sucks when you come up short, but you get that taste of it and realize you learned lessons."
Time to see how the Browns have studied in this budding AFC rivalry between two teams built for the long haul when they meet on Sunday afternoon. The Chiefs bring back a healthy Mahomes, the prohibitive favorite for offensive MVP. But the Browns bring back arguably a better defense, led by their own MVP (Defensive Player of the Year) candidate in defensive end Myles Garrett. Both organizations are primed to win their divisions and potentially meet again in the AFC playoffs.
What a home opener for the conference to start off 2021.
Cleveland at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 12 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -5.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Will Mahomes be better protected?
Mahomes will face linebacker Mack Wilson once again, the man who slung him to the ground and knocked him out of January's matchup. But he’ll also be playing behind a brand-new offensive line after some offseason retooling by the Chiefs.
Not a single one of the five players who started that AFC Divisional Playoff game is projected to start in this home opener. Even Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, back with the Chiefs after taking 2020 off to work in a long-term care facility fighting COVID-19, is expected to play. He'll begin the year as a backup along with January starters Mike Remmers, Nick Allegretti, and Andrew Wylie.
It's a bold set of moves for a team whose quarterback has been sacked just 39 times the last two regular seasons. Compare that to now-sidelined Deshaun Watson, sacked 49 times last year alone for the Houston Texans.
But the Chiefs' offensive leader remains confident, heaping praise on the offseason of change.
"The chemistry that they've built already, it's tremendous," Mahomes said this week. "It seems like they're all best friends, they've known each other forever, and whenever you look at great offensive lines, I feel like you have to have that type of aspect of guys that are going to put complete trust in each other and go out there and get after it every single play."
The Browns defense, which ranked ninth against the run last season, will test them early. Cleveland allowed 123 rushing yards to the Chiefs in the postseason but made its offseason priority boosting the defense, from signing former No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney (defensive end) to linebacker Anthony Walker, who may call plays from the field.
Mahomes and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire will come out swinging. The new Browns will learn quickly just how much better their defensive unit has become.
2. Can Odell Beckham Jr. become a weapon once again?
A key piece missing from the Browns' last matchup against the Chiefs was Beckham, out for most of 2020 after tearing his ACL. Once upon a time, Beckham was considered the most talented receiver in the league before the Giants lost faith due to some off-field antics. With the Browns, he pulled off a 1,000-yard season in 2019 but never reached the lofty, 100-catch number he achieved with his former team back in 2016.
How much is left in the tank for this 28-year-old? Beckham is technically questionable for the game but is widely expected to play — and his fellow teammates are impressed.
"He's worked hard," said fellow wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones this week. "He's a big part of this team … he looked like Odell [in practice]."
Can that translate to chemistry with Mayfield in the opener? Harken back to January's fourth quarter missed opportunity, and it was clear the team needed a playmaker, a Rob Gronkowski-Tom Brady connection of sorts where someone could be relied on in the make-or-break moments. Beckham once was that type of player.
Sunday's our first chance to find out if he still is.
3. Will Arrowhead Stadium be rocking?
Much of the 2020 NFL season involved playing in front of empty stadiums due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Even in the postseason, seating was limited as the sport adhered to local protocols and tried to protect fans from contracting the virus.
With a vaccine widely available in 2021, there are no such restrictions this year. That returns Arrowhead to its place as one of the toughest NFL road stadiums to play in. The Chiefs have piled up a 47-17 regular-season record there since 2012, and even a limited crowd helped them power through last year's push to the Super Bowl.
Don't just take our word for it. Ask Mayfield.
"Arrowhead is one of the more hostile environments in the whole league," he said earlier this week. "And them being back at full capacity, I can only imagine how loud it is going to be. We have to know our game plan inside and out to where if a guy does not hear complete calls, they know exactly where to fill in the pieces."
Easier said than done in the wake of 80,000 screaming voices. The key for the Browns may actually be their defense tuning out the crowd more than the offense. Every team that's beaten the Chiefs at home during the Mahomes era, with the exception of one, has held them to less than 30 points. The exception was the Las Vegas Raiders, who weren't in front of a full stadium when they did it last season in a Week 5 victory (40-32).
Home-field advantage described above makes it hard to bet against the Chiefs. The Browns come into this year somewhat cocky and highly motivated. Moving forward, they'll be a tough out.
But the Chiefs remain a gold standard in the conference, energized in their quest to avenge February's Super Bowl defeat. Expect a display of offensive fireworks as the Browns learn what it's like to play against Mahomes for a whole game … not just the first few quarters.
Prediction: Chiefs 38, Browns 27
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.