The playoffs are here! This is where good teams either flounder or legitimize themselves for all football fans. This is where greats become the greatest. There is no looking back; there are no satisfiable excuses; there are no moral victories. The Lombardi Trophy is on the line and that is the ultimate goal for every football fan, player, coach, general manager, owner, and team. Thankfully for Kansas City Chiefs fans, our team reached that ultimate goal last year, and now, they attempt to turn this incredible team into a dynasty by winning three more games and becoming the first team to repeat as Super Bowl champions since the 2003 and 2004 New England Patriots.
The first team standing in the Chiefs' way is the Cleveland Browns, fresh off an impressive 48-37 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in their first playoff game since 2002. This Browns team is intimidating, there's no doubt about it. Baker Mayfield is playing the best football of his NFL career, their offensive line led by Wyatt Teller, Joel Bitonio and Jack Conklin is fantastic, and the running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is the best in football.
The Browns seem like they should have a good shot — until you remember the other side has Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Andy Reid, the most unstoppable offense in NFL history, and the Browns' defense isn't that great, especially without key pieces like Olivier Vernon.
Fact to Know: Baker Mayfield is playing the best football of his career
Love him or hate him — and there are plenty of people who fit in both camps when it comes to the Browns quarterback — Mayfield has been pivotal for the Browns' success entering this game. For the season, Mayfield finished sixth in EPA+CPOE composite score (0.162), trailing only Aaron Rodgers, Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady and Ryan Tannehill. Considering how those five have played in 2020, that is some incredible company.
Baker Mayfield is also playing extremely well on the tape, as he has a 90.1 Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade since Week 7, the fifth-highest in the NFL behind Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. While Mayfield is still almost certainly the worse quarterback of the matchup by almost every measure, he is still undoubtedly a threat and Browns fans should be proud to have him as their quarterback.
Matchup to Watch: Chris Jones vs. Wyatt Teller
Not enough people know about Wyatt Teller. Teller was a fifth-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, where he played one season. Following that season, he was traded along with a 2021 seventh-round pick to the Browns for a 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2020 sixth-round pick. It seems like he wasn't too desired league-wide. However, in the 2020 season, everything changed for him. The Browns' right guard has flown way under the radar for fans, but he has gotten some big props from the ones paying the most attention. Teller was named a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press (AP) and there are only two offensive players that Pro Football Focus (PFF) have given a higher grade: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
Now Chris Jones will either face him, fellow second-team All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio, or a good combination of both (the likeliest scenario). While this seems like a handful, you have to trust a pass-rushing force like Jones to get the job done when needed. Jones has been nothing short of spectacular this season, graded as PFF's No. 2 interior defender in both overall grading and pass rush grading, only trailing the all-time great Aaron Donald. According to PFF, Jones has a pressure rate of 13.6%, more than four percent higher than Frank Clark and more than seven percent higher than Tanoh Kpassagnon, the two other Chiefs with 25+ pressures on the season. If Jones can put on a show against Teller, Bitonio, or both, it will be a huge badge of honor for him and will be a great sign for the Chiefs.
Key to the Game: Can the Browns pass rush get consistent pressure on Patrick Mahomes?
Browns edge defender Myles Garrett is absolutely dominant. His 13 sacks finished tied for fourth in the NFL. He could be a big problem for the Chiefs on Sunday.
Unfortunately for the Browns, there is some uncertainty in the pass rush outside of Garrett. Their other talented edge defender, Olivier Vernon, suffered a ruptured Achilles in Week 17 after his own very strong season, including a 51 pressure total that wasn't far from Garrett's total with a similar number of snaps.
The third big piece to the Browns' pass rush, who has to move up to second by default, is interior defender Sheldon Richardson, who also had a quality season, totaling 43 pressures and six sacks, according to PFF. Richardson is certainly a quality piece to the puzzle for the Browns and something to fear for the Chiefs interior offensive line, but he's obviously not a game-wrecker like Jones, Donald, or the few other elite interior defensive pass rushers out there.
Without Vernon, the Browns will have to go to Adrian Clayborn to be their No. 2 edge defender. Clayborn is a 10-year NFL veteran with some great seasons, including 2017, where he recorded 58 pressures, 10 sacks and an 81.3 PFF grade with the Falcons. This season, however, he hasn't done very much. According to PFF, in 353 pass-rushing snaps, he has just 26 pressures and four sacks this season. If the Browns want a consistent pass rush, having a third player getting some quick wins against the Chiefs offensive line would be huge, and Clayborn has shown he can do that in the past, but not this season.
Prediction: Chiefs 35, Browns 27
I believe that the Browns will make this a game and earn the respect of Chiefs fans, but the Chiefs come out on top. Patrick Mahomes throws three touchdowns, outdueling Baker Mayfield in this fun, wild battle. The Chiefs become the second team in NFL history to host three consecutive conference championship games, joining the Philadelphia Eagles during the era of current Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. He truly is one of the greatest coaches in football's illustrious history.