We’re finally here: meaningful January football.
Off the heels of a 14-2 season, the Chiefs strut in as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Few things stood in the way of this remarkable regular season, and Kansas City will look to carry that momentum into the playoffs.
Patrick Mahomes and the other Chiefs starters have conveniently had two weeks of rest leading up to this game, ensuring the likes of WR Tyreek Hill, RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and WR Sammy Watkins will be ready and available to play in the tournament. The only question is whether this rest turned into rust and the Chiefs come out flat-footed. And with an opponent like the Cleveland Browns, that could make the Chiefs one-and-done and prematurely end the #RunItBack campaign in Kansas City.
Cleveland is uniquely situated to handle the Chiefs. With a bruising one-two punch at running back, a great O-line, and two athletic tight ends, the Browns may very well have the firepower to keep up in a shootout with Kansas City. That being said, let’s take a look at game itself.
Cleveland Browns X-Factors
Nick Chubb & Kareem Hunt
Chubb and Hunt have been the catalyst for this Browns offense, fueling the No. 3 rushing offense during the regular season. Chubb finished the season with yet another 1,000-yard campaign, despite missing four games. The tandem showed just how deadly they can be in the playoffs, combining for 124 rushing yards, 82 receiving yards, and three total touchdowns.
Against the Chiefs, their job will arguably be easier, as Kansas City has one of the worst linebacking units in the league. All one has to do is look at their games against the Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, and Denver Broncos to see how easy it is to run the football against Kansas City.
With Chubb and Hunt providing a thunder-and-lightning combo, it’ll be difficult to contain the two of them with the personnel and coaching available in Kansas City. If the Browns want to win this game, it’ll hinge on the performance of these two backs.
Nick Chubb: 18 carries, 112 yards, TD; 2 catches, 15 yards
Kareem Hunt: 10 carries, 50 yards; 5 catches, 40 yards, TD
Garrett had himself another Pro Bowl season, racking up 12.0 sacks, 48 tackles, and four forced fumbles through 14 games. Coming into this game for the Chiefs, he’ll look to build upon those stats against the Chiefs’ backup RT, as All-Pro technician Mitchell Schwartz won’t be returning from injured reserve with a back injury. With a high-powered offense that’s difficult to stop, it’ll be up to the Browns to put pressure on Mahomes in order to slow down the Kansas City offense.
In the one Chiefs loss with their starters, the game plan was simple: run the ball behind an excellent O-line to open up the pass and rush the passer. With Garrett, Hunt, and Chubb, the Browns have two-thirds of that formula. But it’s the next X-Factor that will bring the recipe to completion.
Stat Prediction: 6 tackles, 1.5 sacks
The Browns have boasted one of the best O-lines in the NFL this year, finishing as the No. 1 ranked line according to PFF. Usually a line like this would be highlighted by two or three stars, but the Browns have FIVE outstanding starters in rookie LT Jedrick Wills, LG Joel Bitonio, C J.C. Tretter, RG Wyatt Teller, and RT Jack Conklin.
Fueling the No. 3 rushing attack in the league, this line also holds up well in pass protection allowing only two pressures in the Wild Card game against Pittsburgh, the No. 1 pass rush in the league. Kansas City hinges their entire defense on their ability to rush the passer. In their one real loss and in other close games, it was due to a lack of pass rush and strong run game, something the Browns are suited for more than any other team in the league. If Cleveland can do what they do best, they may just have a shot at making it to the AFC Championship game.
Kansas City Chiefs X-Factors
Jones will be one of the most important players against the best O-line in the NFL on Sunday. Amassing 7.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles through 12 games this season, Jones has shown the ability to both rush the passer and defend the run, making him the catalyst for the Chiefs defensive success yet again. With the Chiefs linebackers unable to make plays in space, it’ll be up to Jones and the rest of the Kansas City front-four to prevent the backs from reaching that space in the first place.
While Mike Pennel and Frank Clark have shown their upside this season, they haven’t been consistent when Jones misses time. His presence alone commands a double-team, so it will be interesting to see the blocking matchups HC Kevin Stefanski draws up for the game. Baker Mayfield has been one of the worst QBs in the league when under pressure, showing a 30.9 passer rating, good for 31st in the league. If the Chiefs want to keep their defense from falling apart, they need to penetrate the wall protecting Baker Mayfield.
Stat Prediction: 5 tackles, 1.0 sacks
The rookie sensation has been one of the best CBs from this past draft class, and his play has ignited the Chiefs defense when he’s on the field. Despite missing significant time with a broken collarbone (including the Chiefs’ Week 5 loss to Las Vegas), he picked up right where he left off, finishing the season with three INTs, seven PBUs, and 2.0 sacks through nine games.
The Chiefs defense has been a sieve most of the year, and while Cleveland’s receivers outside of Jarvis Landry don’t look formidable, Rashad Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones have both proven to be standout players when they need to be. And if the Chiefs can pressure Mayfield, it’ll be up to the secondary to take advantage of any poor throws and capitalize. This is the playoffs, and while the Chiefs looked unbeatable early, we know anything can happen. This is the one team you don’t want to play down to, and Sneed will have to have one of his best games to help the Chiefs secure a victory.
Stat Prediction: 4 tackles, 2 PBUs, 1 INT
After resting the past two weeks with a hamstring injury, the Chiefs’ star WR seems healed up and ready to play against the Browns. Tallying 87 catches, 1276 yards, and 15 TDs in the regular season, the Cheetah is just as explosive as ever, and will look to match up against a Browns defense that generated four first-half turnovers against the Steelers a week ago.
With CB Denzel Ward likely to return, Hill will have his work cut out for him. But it’s tough to match that top-end speed that makes him so deadly, and there’s no guarantee the Browns have their CBs shadow receivers. Ronnie Harrison and Andrew Sendajo have also been solid in the backend for the Browns, which could lead to some more problems in the passing game. But ultimately, it’s nearly impossible to stop the Hill/Mahomes combo.
Stat Prediction: 8 catches, 110 yards, TD
This will be one of the most competitive games of the season. The Browns have all the pieces to beat the Chiefs, and are playing with house money in the playoffs.
But, Cleveland will ultimately fall short in making a deep postseason run.
The Browns get going, but Kansas City proves to be too much for their defense to stop.
Final Score: 34-31, Chiefs
(Featured Image Credit: Chiefs.com)