Browns' Keys to Winning vs. Chiefs in 2021 NFL Playoff Matchup
The Cleveland Browns are coming off their biggest win since the franchise came back in 1999. It'll take the franchise's best effort to keep the dream season going against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round.
The Browns enter the second round as the biggest underdog on the slate by a comfortable margin. After overcoming the odds in Pittsburgh as a wild card, they are 9.5-point dogs against the Chiefs, per NFL" target="_blank">DraftKings Sportsbook.
They shouldn't be counted out, though. After winning a playoff game without head coach Kevin Stefanski on the sideline and top cornerback Denzel Ward due to COVID-19 protocols, the Browns have proved they are a formidable foe for playoff football.
Advancing to the AFC Championship Game would be historic. The Browns haven't advanced to the game since 1989. Here's what they need to make happen in order to pull off the upset and write themselves into the history book.
Get Aggressive in the Passing Game
You can't count on stopping the Chiefs offense. Even in their only loss on the season, they put up 32 points. It just so happened that the Raiders were able to put up 40 on the defense.
The only path to an upset is winning in a shootout. The idea that they can control the clock and establish the run sounds good in theory. But it isn't a strategy that has worked in practice. The Chiefs have allowed just two running backs all season to rush for more than 100 yards.
That isn't to say the Browns can afford to abandon the run (more on that later) but rather that the passing game is going to have to create some big plays.
When the Raiders upset the Chiefs in Week 6, it was behind a big performance from Derek Carr. The quarterback threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception.
Those numbers were boosted by big plays from Henry Ruggs III and Nelson Agholor. Ruggs had 118 yards on two catches, but 79 of those yards came before the catch. Thirty-nine of Agholor's 67 came through the air as well.
Specifically, the Browns need to get one-on-one matchups involving Juan Thornhill, Daniel Sorensen and Charvarius Ward. All three are giving up passer ratings of more than 100 when targeted this season, per Pro Football Reference.
Since Week 9, Mayfield's Pro Football Focus passing grade has been higher than Mahomes'. If the Browns are to win on Sunday, they'll have to unleash Mayfield and trust him to win the game.
Monster Games from Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt
This might seem counterintuitive to the previous point that the Browns can't depend on controlling the clock, but they still have to find ways to involve running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Chubb and Hunt have been among the best running back tandems in the league. So while it behoves the Browns to get aggressive in the passing game, it can't be at the cost of becoming pass-happy and eliminating two of their best offensive weapons.
The Chiefs defense is 18th in yards allowed per carry, so it isn't an elite unit when it comes to stopping the run. Conversely, the Browns have PFF's highest-graded offensive line this year and are seventh in the league in yards per carry at 4.8.
Even against a Steelers defense that was holding teams to 4.3 yards per carry, the offensive line paved the way for Chubb and Hunt to rush for 124 yards on 26 carries.
Hunt is typically more involved in the pass game, but Chubb was the one who made plays in the Steelers game. He had four catches for 69 yards including a 40-yard touchdown which served to separate Cleveland.
Finding them in the passing game could be important again. The Chiefs linebackers Ben Niemann (140.7 passer rating allowed) and Anthony Hitchens (106.7) have not been strong in coverage.
Even against the Steelers' vaunted defense, Chubb and Hunt combined for 31 touches. They need to at least hit that mark against the Chiefs.
Myles Garrett and Adrian Clayborn Winning on the Edge
The Chiefs can't be stopped on a regular basis so defensive success is going to be determined by how many "splash plays" the Browns can come up with. Sacks, forced fumbles and interceptions are going to be pivotal in giving the offense some short fields to work with and getting a win.
A lot of that starts with getting some pressure on Mahomes without dedicating too many defenders.
With Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill running roughshod all over defenses, it isn't realistic to expect consistent stops. It's going to be all hands on deck to keep players from running free when Mahomes drops back.
Myles Garrett's ability to be a disruptive force has bailed out the Browns defense multiple times this season. He had 12 sacks and four forced fumbles in 14 regular-season games. The Chiefs have been forced to play Mike Remmers at right tackle, and Eric Fisher is having a down year.
According to Sports Info Solutions, only Jawaan Taylor and Andrew Thomas have blown more passing blocks this season than Fisher. Right guard Andrew Wylie is among the worst guards on that list so scheming him up against Garrett or Adrian Clayborn wouldn't be a bad idea.
Clayborn had 3.5 sacks during the regular season as a largely rotational piece of the defensive line. However, he's had to step into a bigger role since Olivier Vernon's season-ending injury.
Clayborn played 84 percent of the snaps against Pittsburgh but only registered one quarterback hit. He'll need to combine with Porter Gustin to give the Browns some production in a favorable matchup.
There aren't many matchups on paper that look good for the Browns defense. They have to win the one where they have an advantage. A strip-sack along with consistent pressure would go a long way in keeping their offense in a shootout.