The Kansas City Chiefs are the class of the AFC, and Cleveland has to succeed in a few key areas if they hope to beat them in Arrowhead this Sunday.
The front office spent the offseason retooling this roster to take down the Chiefs eventually. The Browns lost against them in the divisional round of the 2020 playoffs, and in that loss, they learned a lot about themselves.
Sunday will be our first look at the 2021 Browns, and their ability to answer these questions will likely determine the game's outcome.
Can they attack Kansas City vertically?
The Browns had no vertical threats in the passing game during the latter half of the 2020 season, and the Chiefs exploited this in the divisional round. Kansas City gave the Browns many one-high safety looks, clogging up running lanes and daring the Browns' offense to beat them down the field.
Cleveland was never able to do that, and they scored only 17 points in the contest. Quarterback Baker Mayfield tried multiple times to push the ball downfield, but the crowded boxes forced him to get rid of the ball before anyone created separation.
This year, the Browns have a multitude of receivers that can challenge defenses vertically. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is the most notable, and Kansas City will be forced to play two deep safeties with Beckham on the field.
The team also added rookie receiver Anthony Schwartz out of Auburn, who is still a little raw but can run by NFL defensive backs right now. He is an Olympic-level sprinter who routinely took the top off defenses at Auburn.
How does this pass defense hold up?
Fans around the NFL have become accustomed to monster games from Chiefs' quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and for good reason. He will likely have another good game on Sunday, but that doesn't mean this pass defense will be ineffective.
The Browns have three new starting defensive backs in their base personnel: corner Troy Hill, corner Greg Newsome II, and safety John Johnson III. Each of these players is a significant upgrade over what the team played with last year, and the Browns should field one of the better pass defenses this year.
Suppose the corners can consistently stay in phase while the safeties take away the middle of the field. In that case, they can at least make the Chiefs resort to Plan B. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods put together a solid defensive effort last season, which makes it reasonable to expect more of the same.
Can the Browns consistently play winning football?
This one seems broad but is by far the most important. The Browns are finally a Super Bowl contender, which means they have to operate like one.
That starts with Mayfield. He needs to play mistake-free football and create a few plays that aren't there. He routinely did this at the end of 2020, and with another offseason in head coach Kevin Stefanski's system under his belt, he could take the next step.
The defense has to play gap-sound football, letting the game come to them while not letting Kansas City generate explosive play after explosive play. If you let the Chiefs operate within their comfort zone, you will get run off the field.
Most importantly, the entire team has to remain composed and focused. One bad series does not define the outcome, and the same can be said of a good one. The group appears to be focused on the task at hand, which is a good sign.