4:25 PM EST, CBS – Line: Chiefs -6, Over/Under: 54.5
A Playoff rematch is on tap at Arrowhead Stadium today, as the Cleveland Browns will be looking for some payback after last year’s matchup in the Division Round against the Kansas City Chiefs, who are simply looking to put last February’s sensational demise in Super Bowl LV behind them. Indeed, while 2020 was nothing short of a train wreck for many teams around the National Football League, it was absolutely a hallmark year for the Browns, who snapped a pair of dubious streaks in earning their first winning record since 2008 and making their first postseason appearance since 2002. After years of playing musical chairs with Head Coaches, General Managers, and Quarterbacks (among other personnel), Cleveland struck gold in the form of the partnership between (HC) Kevin Stefanski and (GM) Andrew Berry, who were finally able to put all of the pieces together in the ‘Land, turning this perpetually dysfunctional organism into a fine-tuned machine. Stefanski streamlined the Offense a great deal, shifting the focus to a bullish (and diverse) running game that ranked third in the NFL in yards (148.4) and fifth in yards per carry (4.8), which led to a more sustainable attack (44.9% on third down, 7th Overall) and far more efficient within the red zone (73.6%, 3rd Overall). (Tailbacks) Nick Chubb (190 CAR, 1,067 YDS, 5.6 Y/A, 12 TD) and Kareem Hunt (236 Touches, 1,145 YDS, 4.9 Y/T, 11 TD) complemented each other perfectly, with the former’s bruising style providing balance to the latter’s versatility. Of course, this made life much easier for (Quarterback) Baker Mayfield (62.8%, 3,563 YDS, 6.64 NY/A, 26 TD, 8 INT, 72.2 QBR), who in his first year within Stefanski’s scheme finally emerged as one of the better young passers in the league; 2020 was viewed as a make or break year for the former No. One Overall Pick, who had become more recognizable for his commercial work than his performance on the gridiron, throwing nearly as many interceptions (21) as touchdowns (22) in 2019. With the rushing attack simplifying things and affording him the luxury of utilizing play-action and bootlegs, Mayfield authored career-bests in a slew of categories, including interceptions (8) and percentage (1.6%), passer rating (95.9), and QBR (72.2). Ironically, this growth largely came without the services of (All-Pro Wideout) Odell Beckham Jr. (23 REC, 319 YDS, 13.9 Y/R, 3 TD), who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week Seven. In his two years with the franchise, the three-time Pro-Bowler has yet to really develop the expected chemistry with his Quarterback, with many pointing to his absence being a catalyst to the Browns’ improving Offense. During the offseason there were rumors out of Cleveland that Beckham was indeed on the market, and though nothing materialized, this campaign has all the makings of an important one for the now 28-year old. That notion is only underscored by the presence of other weapons, including (Tight End) Austin Hooper (46 REC, 435 YDS, 9.5 Y/R, 4 TD) and (former collegiate teammate) Jarvis Landry (72 REC, 840 YDS, 11.7 Y/R, 3 TD). Defensively, they’ll be looking to make a leap this season, particularly against the pass where they were oftentimes shredded to the tune of 247.6 yards per game through the air (22nd Overall), while yielding thirty-one passing scores, the seventh-most in the NFL. Fortunately, this side of the football isn’t short on talent either, what with (All-Pro Defensive End) Myles Garrett (48 TKL, 10 TFL, 18 QBH, 12.0 SK, 4 FF, 2 PD) wrecking havoc off the edge, while (third-year Cornerback) Denzel Ward (46 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FF, 2 INT, 18 PD) has emerged as a playmaker within the Secondary. The aforementioned Berry continued to bolster their ranks in the offseason, adding the talents of (former Pro-Bowler) Jadeveon Clowney (19 TKL, 4 TFL, 6 QBH, 1 FF) along with veterans such as (Linebacker) Anthony Walker Jr. (92 TKL, 2TFL, 1 QBH, 1 INT, 5 PD) and (Safety) John Johnson III (105 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 8 PD), along with promising rookies like (Linebacker) Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and (Cornerback) Greg Newsome II. If this unit can continue to grow then Cleveland could find themselves as one of the primary challengers to Kansas City’s reign over the AFC, for after all, they gave them everything they could handle in last year’s matchup at Arrowhead; though they never led, the visitors got uncomfortably close late in the affair and if not for an audacious (yet successful) pass play on Fourth & Short near midfield courtesy of (Backup Quarterback) Chad Henne no less, then that 22-17 outcome could have been very different. And speaking of different, how about the Browns earn a different outcome than they have in the last FIFTEEN Season Openers? That’s right, folks, this team hasn’t kicked off a campaign with a victory since 2004, with last year’s 38-6 drubbing at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens prolonging what isn’t just the longest active streak in the NFL, but by far and way the longest such run of ineptitude in league history.
Meanwhile, the Browns aren’t the only team entering this weekend looking to put a bitter defeat behind them, for the Chiefs experienced an even worse fate as they advanced all the way to Super Bowl LV only to be ran off the field in embarrassing fashion. Indeed, Kansas City was that close to becoming the first team to repeat as Super Bowl Champions in sixteen years, but were thoroughly outclassed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 31-9 debacle that was nothing short of uncharacteristic for the previously reigning champs. The top-ranked Offense in the NFL (at a robust 425.2 total yards per game) was relegated to a disappointing 350 yards, while also converting a miserable 4-of-16 on third and fourth down, and remarkably failing to score a single touchdown for the first time during the Patrick Mahomes (66.3%, 4,740 YDS, 7.53 NY/A, 38 TD, 6 INT, 82.9 QBR) Era (54 games including Playoffs). And speaking of the 2019 MVP, he struggled mightily against a Bucs’ Defense that harassed him throughout the affair; Mahomes completed 26-of-49 passes for 270 yards and a pair of interceptions, and was relentlessly pressured whenever he dropped back to pass as he was hit a total of nine times, three of which were sacks. Despite their prolific production, the Chiefs’ only true weakness offensively in 2020 was their Offensive Line, which suffered from COVID-19 opt-outs (Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Lucas Niang), and significant injuries to others (Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz), with both Starting Tackles out of action in the Super Bowl. Needless to say, that performance left quite the impression on (Head Coach) Andy Reid and (General Manager) Brett Veach, who set about completely rebuilding that particular position group during the Offseason; Kansas City traded for (Left Tackle) Orlando Brown Jr. in a deal with the Baltimore Ravens, while signing (veteran Guard) Joe Thuney in Free Agency, with both the aforementioned Duvernay-Tardif and Niang returning to action. Oh, and they also drafted (Center) Creed Humphrey and (Guard) Trey Smith in the Second and Sixth Rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft, before coaxing (former Pro-Bowl Guard) Kyle Long out of retirement. It should be interesting to see how this unit comes together, for that means that heading into tonight three of Reid’s projected starting linemen have never logged a single NFL snap. With that said, it’s difficult seeing Kansas City NOT getting off to a torrid start, for that’s become their calling card with Mahomes at the helm; the Chiefs have fourteen consecutive games in the month of September, including ten straight since Mahomes became the Starting Quarterback, with the 25-year old throwing a staggering thirty-two touchdowns passes in comparison to zero interceptions. The Offense remains loaded at the skill positions, with (All-Pros) Travis Kelce (105 REC, 1,416 YDS, 13.5 Y/R, 11 TD) and Tyreek Hill (87 REC, 1,276 YDS, 14.7 Y/R, 15 TD) bonafide gamebreakers, while the likes of (third-year Receiver/Return Specialist) Mecole Hardman (31 REC, 560 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 4 TD) also has speed to spare. Furthermore, look (Sophomore Tailback) Clyde Edwards-Helaire (217 Touches, 1,100 YDS, 5.1 Y/T, 5 TD) to make good on his draft billing, with his versatility within Reid’s scheme creating a very high ceiling for the player. Defensively, this team hasn’t changed much, which should be a good thing given the growth that they showed under (venerable Defensive Coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo; Kansas City ranked tenth in the league in both points allowed (22.6) and takeaways (22), but at the same capitulated far too often in the red zone where they ranked dead-last in yielding a touchdown on 76.6% of their opponents’ opportunities. Interestingly, Spagnuolo is moving (Pro-Bowl Tackle) Chris Jones (36 TKL, 3 TFL, 28 QBH, 2 FF, 4 PD, 1 SFTY) to Defensive End, while bringing in some serious beef in the form of (Tackle) Jarran Reed (38 TKL, 5 TFL, 14 QBH, 6.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD) in Free Agency, and trading for (former First Round Pick) Mike Hughes (13 TKL, 1 PD) in a deal with the Minnesota Vikings. They also drafted (Linebacker) Nick Bolton (58th Overall) all in an effort to improve a porous run defense (122.1, 21st Overall). The new faces should see plenty of action early, for this unit does feature so rather significant concerns heading into today’s matchup, particularly in the form of (Defensive End) Frank Clark (21 TKL, 8 TFL, 15 QBH, 6.0 SK, 2 PD) and (Versatile Defensive Back) Tyrann Mathieu (62 TKL, 3 TFL, 2 QBH, 6 INT, 1 TD, 9 PD), with former limited in practice of late due to a tender hamstring, while the latter tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week.