The Kansas City Chiefs will host the Cleveland Browns in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs on Sunday. The last time the Browns played in the divisional round was January 7, 1995. The last time the Browns got past the divisional round was 1989. The Chiefs have obvious recent playoff success, hosting the previous two AFC Championship games and winning the Super Bowl last season. A win over the Browns would place the Chiefs in elite company as the only AFC team in NFL history to host three consecutive AFC Championship games.
The Chiefs are heavy favorites, with most betting lines showing them as a 10-point favorite. Head coach Andy Reid will rely heavily on the arm of Patrick Mahomes, the speed and agility of Tyreek Hill, the consistency of Travis Kelce, the strength of Chris Jones, the brainpower of Tyran Mathieu and the attitude of Frank Clark. If last year is any indicator of things to come this postseason, these are the guys who are expected to make an impact during a playoff run to another Super Bowl.
Who could step up and potentially be a "surprise" contributor against the Browns? These are my three under-the-radar players to keep an eye on as the game unfolds on Sunday.
1. Le'Veon Bell
In the last two years, running back Damien Williams played a huge role in the Chiefs’ postseason success.
While passing the ball will always be the Chiefs’ best option with Patrick Mahomes as their quarterback, it's a nice bonus to have an experienced running back who can get you those tough third-and-short yards or help milk some clock if the team has a double-digit lead late in the game. Rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire is questionable at best as he recovers from a hip/leg injury and still seems likely to miss the Chiefs' first playoff game of 2021. This is precisely why general manager Brett Veach brought Le’Veon Bell into the mix when he became a free agent earlier this season.
Bell has playoff experience and can take on an expanded workload as he should be fresh heading into the divisional round. He wasn’t overworked this season, splitting carries with Frank Gore during his time with the New York Jets and doing the same with Edwards-Helaire when he joined the Chiefs. Thanks to the Chiefs clinching the one seed in Week 16, Bell was able to rest in Week 17. A de facto double-bye heading into this year’s playoff should also mean he will be about as healthy as a back can be this late in the season. Bell can be utilized in multiple ways, both as a runner and a pass-catcher, and It wouldn’t be shocking to see him finish with over 100 total yards and a touchdown or two against the Browns on Sunday. Keep an eye out for No. 26 again this postseason, even though the name on the back of the jersey will be different.
2. Mecole Hardman
Most people have made up their minds about second-year wide receiver and returner Mecole Hardman. They’ve decided that Hardman is a special teams player who will occasionally make a nice play on offense as a receiver. I won’t argue with those folks, but Hardman has another chance to show why the Chiefs picked him in the second round of the 2019 draft. He helped spark the comeback in the 2020 divisional round against the Houston Texas with a huge kick return after the Texans took a 24-0 lead. That return led to a 51-7 run to close the game and eventually lead to a Chiefs Super Bowl title.
With wide receiver Sammy Watkins out this weekend, Hardman should also see a significant chunk of snaps at wide receiver. The Browns secondary is not very good at containing the deep ball (a Chiefs specialty) and Hardman could be seen sneaking behind a Browns defender and getting into the end zone as they focus on stopping Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Keep an eye on Hardman to make a big play or two and put the Chiefs on the winning track Sunday.
3. Anthony Hitchens
After missing a few games to close the season, Anthony Hitchens will be back and ready to lead a banged-up linebacker crew against an excellent Browns rushing attack featuring Nick Chubb and former Chief Kareem Hunt.
I’m looking for Hitchens to make a game-changing play on Sunday. It could be a big tackle for loss on a third down to force a punt, a forced fumble at a critical moment or perhaps even an interception on a pass intended for tight end Austin Hooper. Plus, Hitchens could very well lead the team in tackles as he commands the middle of the defense.
If these three players make big contributions on Sunday, the Chiefs should be well on their way to hosting a third consecutive AFC Championship at Arrowhead Stadium. With eyes on the prize, this team will be focused and ready to roll.