CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns are set to take on the reigning Super Bowl champs, the Kansas City Chiefs, in the team’s first appearance in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs since Jan. 7, 1995. They’re underdogs on the road against the top of the class in the AFC, but on any given Sunday, as the Browns proved last week, everyone has a shot.
By being healthy
As the Browns prepare for their toughest challenge of the season, they’ve got some things going their way, including getting some players back, as well as their head coach.
Kevin Stefanski, after testing positive for COVID-19 and missing the Browns-Steelers Wild Card playoff game, returned to the team on Thursday to resume coaching duties. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer had taken over the reins while Stefanski was quarantining but made sure to say “this is Kevin’s team.”
With their head coach back in the building, and on the sidelines on Sunday, other players also make their return to the field after missing last week’s game.
Star cornerback Denzel Ward was cleared from the reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday, allowing him to return to practice and get back in the game after missing the past two weeks. Ward said he was symptomatic after testing positive for the virus, which could have been why he was forced to miss two games despite protocol allowing him to return in time for Week 17, had his symptoms improved at that point.
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods said they held Ward back on his reps at practice a bit in his return but said he “looked good” and that “he’ll be ready to go” on Sunday.
Cornerback Kevin Johnson also returns from the reserve/COVID-19 list.
The Browns offensive line held its own in the Wild Card round of the playoffs in an unbelievable fashion. After losing All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio, who tested positive for COVID-19 before the playoff game, Michael Dunn stepped in to fill the role. Dunn went down in the fourth quarter and newly acquired Blake Hance, who had never played a snap in an NFL game, entered the game at guard and kept quarterback Baker Mayfield clean the rest of the game.
Bitonio returns to the field on Sunday after being activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list, bolstering the offensive line with veteran talent and leadership, and giving him his first playoff experience in his seven-year career, which he has spent entirely with the Browns, for better but mostly worse.
Wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, who has developed impressive chemistry with Mayfield this season and has helped the wide receiver room stay strong even after losing Odell Beckham Jr. to a season-ending knee injury, was cleared from the reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday. Hodge has proven to be extremely reliable this season, recording first downs in every reception he’s had this season.
Getting their head coach, All-Pro guard, star corner and reliable receiver back in the mix is a huge boost for the Browns to be competitive in this game.
Cleveland is going up against a Patrick Mahomes led Chiefs team, who is bound to give the Browns a hard time with his elite ability on the field and his wealth of offensive weapons. From side-arm laser passes to no-look dimes, Mahomes will find a window for most of his passes, something the Browns have worked all week to prepare for.
“There’s been a couple quarterbacks who have that type of arm talent—I’ve coached against very few, like Brett Farve, those types of guys, Aaron Rodgers, that’s who he kind of reminds you of—but the challenge is the plays are going to be extended,” said Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods. “We’re going to have to cover him twice—the initial route and then when he’s on the move. But when he’s scrambling, he’ll throw it the whole way across the field. Just unbelievable talent. We’re going to have to be at our best to beat these guys.”
Mahomes will have Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill and Cleveland Heights native Travis Kelce, who set the NFL record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single season and ended in second for most receiving yards of any player during the regular season, at his disposal on Sunday.
“He is a great player. Can do it all. Runs like a receiver, catches like a receiver,” Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski said of Kelce before the game, saying the tight end is a “rare combination” of size, speed, and athleticism.
In the running game, the Chiefs may or may not have rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who led the team this season with 803 yards while catching 36 passes and scoring five touchdowns. He is listed as questionable on the Chiefs current injury report and could be sidelined Sunday. Kansas City also has former Steeler Le’Veon Bell.
But while the Chiefs' offense may seem loaded and uncontrollable, there is an area for the Browns to exploit on Sunday.
The Chiefs’ weakness on the offense front is their offensive line, which will be missing tackle Mitchell Schwartz (yes, the former Brown) who is on injured reserve. Mahomes was sacked 22 times during the regular season and four times during their second-to-last last regular-season matchup with the New Orleans Saints.
Establishing an explosive offense
Last week the Browns had an incredible start, recovering a fumble for a touchdown on the first play of the game and going up 28-0 in the first quarter over the Steelers.
While it is unlikely the Browns get the same gift-wrapped start to this Sunday’s game against the Chiefs, they can still start explosively—and will likely need to in order to win.
The Browns have found great success this season mixing up the offense and spreading the ball around to the slew of offensive weapons while shipping away at defenses with the core identity of the offense—the run game led by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
When it comes to rushing yards, the Chiefs aren’t the best at stopping them, although they also aren't the worst. Giving up 1,954 rushing yards during the regular season, the Chiefs are ranked 12th in the league.
Kansas City’s rush defense allowed an average of 4.5 yards per carry, ranked 15th in the league. The Chiefs’ biggest weakness in its rush defense is the ability to force fumbles, recording just one rushing fumble this season.
With a run-of-the-mill rush defense, the Browns will likely look to establish the run game early, wearing the defense down while also staying innovative and allowing Mayfield to win in the air as well.
The Chiefs’ receiving defense averaged 11.4 yards per reception during the regular season, matching the Browns receiving defense. Kansas City’s defense gave up 54 receptions for 20 or more yards this season, but they were also tied for second in the league for most receiving fumbles with eight and notched 16 interceptions, two for touchdowns.
Chubb and Hunt will hopefully be able to whittle down the defense throughout the game while Mayfield shows his franchise quarterback leadership by remaining accurate, working through his progressions, and making the right choices on Sunday.
Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. was ruled out with an ankle injury, a huge break for Chubb and Hunt as Kansas City takes the field without one of their most athletic linebackers.
Flashback to 2016
Sunday’s game could once again be a shootout between Mahomes and Mayfield—a flashback to the 2016 meeting between the two when Mayfield’s Oklahoma University and Mahomes’ Texas Tech went head-to-head.
The duel ended with Mayfield on top after a 66-59 battle that found both quarterbacks setting records along the way, including a record-high 1,279 combined passing yards. Mayfield had seven touchdown passes and pushed his team to the win.
“We had to score every single drive in the second half just to win because Pat threw the ball 80-something times and had 800 yards all-purpose by himself,” Mayfield said, reflecting on that game. “It was an unbelievable game and unbelievable atmosphere. Just the back and forth is something that I will not forget.”
While a classic showdown like we saw in 2016 probably won’t repeat itself in that way, the game could prove to be high scoring and a battle of the offenses, which are both team’s strengths.
Browns like being underdogs
As for the Browns—they refuse to let anyone count them out by staying focused on the task at hand: to get the team’s first Divisional Round playoff win since Jan. 6, 1990.
“When you get in that stadium Sunday, ultimately, everybody knows what's at stake,” Stefanski said.
Cleveland enters the matchup as 10-point underdogs to the Chiefs, but the Browns aren’t letting outside noise pre-determine their fate.
“We believe in ourselves, and that is why we are here. Like I said, we have a bunch of fighters who have scratched and clawed to get here so we are going to continue to do that week in and week out,” Mayfield said.
The Browns have the chance to be one game removed from something the team has never been able to do—make it to the Super Bowl.
The Browns and Chiefs kick things off at Arrowhead Stadium Sunday at 3:05 p.m.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.