This Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs will begin their 2021 regular season in their quest for a second Super Bowl in three seasons, facing the Cleveland Browns in GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
The big storyline of the last game these two teams played against each other was the injury of Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs' superstar quarterback was knocked out of the contest in the third quarter, and the heroics of Chad Henne and Andy Reid led to the team being able to hold on to the lead late with some wild plays and beautiful play-calling.
In regards to the Browns, they are looking for some revenge and are one of the main teams chasing the Chiefs in AFC contention this year. This is thanks to quarterback Baker Mayfield, an elite offensive line and nice weapons like Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt and Odell Beckham Jr.
Fact to Know: The Browns were a clear top 5 team in the NFL in 2020.
The Browns were the fifth-best team in the NFL in EPA per play last season, trailing the Green Bay Packers, Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Interestingly enough, they were the only of the five with a sub-55% early-down pass rate, having the ninth-highest early-down run rate at 49.7%.
The Browns finished sixth with a 0.164 offensive EPA per play and tied for 15th with a 0.035 Defensive EPA per play, making them one of the best all-around teams in football. There could be improvement with the Browns this year, too, with the additions of Jadeveon Clowney and John Johnson III to replace Adrian Clayborn, Olivier Vernon and Karl Joseph.
With that said, it is just as possible that there could be regression though. Mayfield or the offensive line could certainly regress from the high bar they set last season, with Mayfield being a top 10 quarterback and the Browns' offensive line being one of the three best in the league along with the Packers and Indianapolis Colts.
Matchup to Watch: Chris Jones vs. Browns offensive tackles
I am not sure which side Chris Jones will play more on, as he played a good amount of his preseason snaps on both sides of the edge. The Chiefs' veteran pass-rusher brings the defensive end group a consistently great presence, while they still have the necessary pieces to be good on the interior with Jarran Reed, Derrick Nnadi and Tershawn Wharton there. I expect Jones to have a monster season, with some of the best numbers of his career. First, we need to see how he looks there for 50 snaps against a really good Browns offensive line.
At left tackle, the Browns have Jedrick Wills Jr., their 10th overall pick from the 2020 draft. Wills was a solid tackle as a rookie, getting a 77.6 pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF), and there is little doubt that he can become one of the better tackles in the league in the coming future. At right tackle, there's Jack Conklin, the two-time first-team All-Pro, with one each coming with the Browns and Tennessee Titans. Conklin had a career-best 84.0 PFF grade in 2020, ranking third among AFC offensive tackles, and there are no signs of him regressing for a while.
The Browns' offensive tackle room reminds me of the Chiefs' group, with an established star tackle with multiple years of being an All-Pro or Pro Bowler and a young, talented tackle looking to become a star as well. Jones against either Wills or Conklin could be an amazing battle, and I think Jones would still have the advantage against either because he is one of the greatest pass rushers in the league today.
Key to the Game: Patrick Mahomes needs to remain healthy and resemble his old self.
Mahomes has obviously had a couple of tough injuries that he has had to go through, and they affected him all postseason. He even had offseason surgery on his foot, signaling just how serious things were. However, Mahomes looked great in those games that he fought through injury in and there should be little doubt that rest has helped. I would have to think that Mahomes will look fully healthy and prepared in this game en route to a potential perfect season that he has stated he desires.
Prediction: Chiefs 35, Browns 24
This game, on paper, should be one of the toughest games on the Chiefs' schedule this season. With that said, the Chiefs and Mahomes have been quite dominant in the month of September in this Mahomes-Reid era — where the team has zero losses and boasts historically great statistical production. This will be no different, with the Chiefs jumping out to a 28-10 lead at halftime with Mahomes throwing touchdowns to Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Byron Pringle. Jones also gets two sacks and consistent pressure throughout the game and Clyde Edwards-Helaire gets his first 100-yard rushing day since Week 6 of last year against the Bills.