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Divisional Round NFL Playoff Preview: Cleveland Browns vs. Kansas City Chiefs

Mike Tanier dissects the players to watch and key elements to the Browns vs. Chiefs Divisional Round tilt in the 2020-2021 NFL Playoffs.

Divisional Round NFL Playoff Preview: Cleveland Browns vs. Kansas City Chiefs
CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 04: Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns signals during the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 4, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Here’s the NFL Recap first-look preview of the AFC Divisional Round contest between the Cleveland Browns vs. Kansas City Chiefs, scheduled for Sunday, January 17th at 3:05 PM.

Editor’s Note: For the rest of Mike Tanier’s individual NFL Divisional Round playoff previews, make sure to check out his full NFL Wild Card Recap. Not only does he give in-depth breakdowns of each game, but he also provides you with his Studs’ n’ Duds.

The backdrop to the Browns vs. Chiefs matchup

It’s been fun, Cleveland Browns. The regular season was a blast. Sunday night’s 48-37 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers — your first playoff win in 25 years! — was like riding the roller coaster in a haunted amusement park.

Related | When do the 2021 NFL playoffs start? Updated schedule and start times

But a well-rested Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and the Kansas City Chiefs are here to set fire to your secondary, and there’s nothing Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, and your station-to-station offense can do about it. The only way to defeat the Chiefs is to hope they beat themselves with penalties and turnovers while outsmarting themselves with an over-ambitious game plan. You know, kinda like the Steelers did on Sunday. Come to think of it, maybe the Browns really do have an ever-so-slim chance.

Here’s NFL Recap’s first-look preview of the Divisional Round matchup of the Browns vs. Chiefs.

How the Kansas City Chiefs got here

Back at the turn of the century, when Tiger Woods won two or three majors per year, he did not always take lesser tournaments all that seriously: he would barely make the cut at some warmup for the Masters because he was trying out new approaches or putting left-handed or whatever. (NFL Recap is exaggerating, but you get the idea).

Mahomes and the Chiefs treated this entire season the way Tiger treated the East Nan Madol Country Club Invitational, winning their final seven games by a total of 26 points but always making it clear that they could pull away at any moment as soon as they decided to stop fiddling with triple-reverse options and start playing real football.

How the Cleveland Browns got here

Safety Karl Joseph pounced on a wild pitch of a shotgun snap in the end zone for a Browns’ touchdown on the opening play of the game. Then things got weird. The Browns took a 35-10 halftime lead with the help of three Ben Roethlisberger interceptions and 103 rushing yards from Chubb and Kareem Hunt. However, Roethlisberger discovered the Fountain of Youth at halftime and began picking apart a secondary missing starter Denzel Ward and nickel defender Kevin Johnson (Reserve list).

The Steelers were poised to come back and restore the natural order to the universe by defeating the Browns when head coach Mike Tomlin opted to punt on 4th-and-1 from the Steelers’ 46-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter. The Browns appeared to breathe a sigh of relief the moment Tomlin took his foot off the accelerator. They quickly marched 80 yards, capped by a Chubb screen-and-go touchdown, then kept the Steelers at arm’s length in an NBA shootout the rest of the way.

Oh, and the Browns did all of this with almost no practice this week and head coach Kevin Stefanski in quarantine. Maybe the Browns’ problem for the last 25 years was that they worked too hard and were coached too much. Nah … that can’t be it.

What we learned about the Browns this week

For one thing, we learned they could overcome adversity and win in unusual circumstances. However, they have done a lot of that this season.

The Browns also reminded us that Chubb and Hunt can both generate big plays and keep the chains moving. Browns running backs ranked first in the NFL in second-level yards, per Football Outsiders. In other words, once Chubb and Hunt break through the line of scrimmage (which happens a lot, thanks to the outstanding Browns offensive line), they are the best backs in the NFL, Derrick Henry included, at generating 5-to-8 yard gains.

Kansas City Chiefs greatest strength

Mahomes and the Chiefs produced 69 passing plays of 20-plus yards in the regular season, second in the NFL behind the Houston Texans, with 70. Speaking of which, please keep Deshaun Watson in your thoughts as he copes with the fact that the organization has been taken over by this guy.

Kansas City Chiefs biggest weakness

The Chiefs committed 105 penalties in the regular season, the fourth-highest total in the NFL. They finished second in the league with 21 offensive holds and had 310 yards of offense negated by penalties. The Chiefs won several close games in which the opponent’s defensive MVP was a yellow flag.

Cleveland Browns player to watch

Ward and Johnson should be off the reserve list by Sunday. The Browns desperately need both of them, but especially Ward, who is the only defender in their secondary who can even stay in the same television frame as Tyreek Hill.

Browns vs. Chiefs Bottom Line

The Chiefs are going to tear the Browns secondary to shreds like pulled pork. Mayfield won’t be able to keep up by handing off and throwing short boot passes. The Browns and their fans should be proud of the 2020 season and can look forward to trying to take the next step in 2021. But Sunday night was the Browns Super Bowl. This game will be their reality check.

Early Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs.

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