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“The waiting is the hardest part” – Tom Petty
The hours can’t go by any slower, it seems. Kickoff between the Browns and Chiefs is at 3:05 ET in Kansas City but it feels like the sand in the hourglass has turned into molasses. All the extra time has led my mind to wander with more thoughts on the matchup.
Here’s what is on my mind in the final hours leading into Cleveland’s first appearance in the AFC divisional round since the 1994 season…
D’Ernest Johnson could be a big factor in the return game
It was a key to victory in last week’s preview against the Steelers: special teams. And by and large, coordinator Mike Priefer’s units played very well in Pittsburgh. The spark that the third-string RB Johnson has provided as a return man could be something to light another Browns fire on Sunday.
He might only get one shot, however; Chiefs PK Harrison Butker booted the ball into the end zone for a touchback on over 75 percent of his kickoffs. The good news is that it might only take one Johnson return to alter the game. Cleveland can’t waste it.
The Chiefs’ speed over the top of the defense is a big problem
Just as it might only take one big kick return from Johnson to change the game, the Chiefs only need to connect on one or two deep passes to Tyreek Hill or Mecole Hardman to hit paydirt. Their speed blows away the Cleveland secondary, even with Denzel Ward and Ronnie Harrison back in the Browns lineup. And they’re not shy about trying to hit those, either.
Travis Kelce on a tight end skinny post against a linebacker, with the safety pulled outside and away because of speed concerns? That’s my biggest fear for the Browns defense in Kansas City. Kelce set the NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end this season and the Browns have had issues with far lesser TEs than the unanimous All-Pro.
This one should be fun
Last week’s win in Pittsburgh (and saying that does not get old!) was fun on so many levels. So much pent-up negative energy and decades of frustration flew out the window like the opening snap over Ben Roethlisberger’s head.
This week will be a different kind of fun. I expect the Browns to play loose and aggressive, which is exactly where Baker Mayfield has been at his best. There’s a line between being loose and being reckless and Kevin Stefanski seems to have drawn it where Mayfield can see it clearly. I expect explosive plays in both the run and pass game and creative flair like the Jarvis Landry passes we’ve cheered for this year.
To go back to Tom Petty songs, the Browns won’t back down.
The Chiefs are fun, too. They generate big plays and base their philosophy around creating them on both offense and defense. Patrick Mahomes is the best player in the AFC and it’s hard to dislike his approach or his results — what happens on Sunday excepted.
I think it will be close and exciting. If the Browns can seize an early lead and create a takeaway or two, they’ve got a chance to shock the world even more than they did a week ago. Cleveland will not be outclassed.
But I really struggle to see the Browns defense getting a critical stop when they really need it. The Chiefs converted just under 50 percent of their third-down attempts this year, second in the league, while the Browns defense finished 23rd in third-down defense. The ballgame lies right there, and the defending champs ice the victory at home with a late drive. Chiefs 37, Browns 29.
Here’s to hoping I’m wrong!