When match-ups against a supposed rival end in a pummeling for five decades, swapping coaches every other season while they stack playoff wins and Super Bowl trophies, it grows tiresome. Not only your losing, but their successes. Smug faces in black and gold, touting victories they had nothing to do with, celebrating your pain as much as their happiness. It’s impossible to be an NFL team with a 6-44 record since 1970 on the road facing a rival, yet that was the record the Cleveland Browns hauled to Pittsburgh with them, with all their sordid history against a foe just 135 miles south. The towns and their fan bases are quite similar, yet their records, opposite. Perhaps a shift is coming, however. 48-37.
In January everything gets magnified. While the Browns defense struggled again, they forced Ben Roethlisberger and the Steeler offense into five turnovers. Baker Mayfield committed none. The difference in Mayfield, and the team, this season over last, is the mistakes. Mayfield has thrown just one interception in his last ten games. While the completion percentage has fluctuated, his poise hasn’t. Kevin Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt understand their quarterback and the things he needs for success. They’ve built an offense around his strengths. Mayfield has enough talent to win, as long as the weight of the offense isn’t on him. A devastating running game, elite offensive line, and imaginative play calling from the sidelines give Mayfield the tools he requires.
Now he’s the first Browns quarterback to win a playoff game since Vinny Testaverde. Mayfield doesn’t waver. His confidence is key, a swagger and presence essential to win in Cleveland. It looked as though Ben Roethlisberger was delaying his exit from Heinz Field Sunday night, basking under the lights of so many of the successes in his Hall of Fame career. But it may have ended then, and these franchises are headed away from one another. Baker Mayfield has taken the reins, poised to lead the Browns for a decade. As Roethlisberger wept on the sideline after a stunning loss, Steeler Nation had another use for their Terrible Towels. The Steelers have one of the best ownership groups in sports and employ an excellent head coach. But cap hell is coming, and a retiring quarterback, whether this year or next. It’s Cleveland’s time.
Sunday’s victory meant more to a fan base destroyed by losses and incompetence than most can imagine. Despite a COVID nightmare all week, one without a practice until Friday, missing the likely Coach of the Year and a Pro Bowl guard, the Browns rallied behind the adversity and Mayfield. The roster is lacking, mainly on defense, but the want-to Stefanski has installed isn’t. For 21 years, the Browns and their fans have toiled under false pretenses and ineptitude from all ranks of their franchise. Sunday was the reward. The trophies still sit perched in Pittsburgh, but the hope now lives in Cleveland.
So bury the Steelers. The Super Bowl champion Chiefs await, a task more meaningful in the lessons it will provide more than the outcome. A road game in Kansas City in January for a team as young as Cleveland’s provides tests that nothing else can. The Browns will probably lose on Sunday, but their mettle will show, regardless. The Chiefs are perhaps the greatest offensive team in history, piloted by one of the most dynamic quarterbacks ever. Cleveland’s goal is to develop this rivalry. K.C. will be here for the next decade. They are the new Patriots, the AFC standard any challenger will have to defeat. Patrick Mahomes vs. Baker Mayfield. To get there the Browns have to feel these games and learn what the effect of losing them will have. Sunday is gravy. Enjoy it.
So where’s the path to victory? For one, turnovers. They turn games, especially one offs in the NFL. The Browns defense is fifth in the league, creating 1.5 turnovers per game, so Sunday was no fluke. But K.C. takes care of the ball. Mahomes possesses the second lowest interception rate in the league, and the Chiefs have the eighth best turnover margin. Their offense is a buzz saw of efficiency. But they’ve struggled since November. They’re only beating opponents by an average of 3.5 points per game, not dominant. K.C. was still winning, however. Did they just shift into cruise?
Cleveland must turn up the aggression on Sunday. Go for it on 4th down, even in minus territory. And don’t kick field goals in the red zone. K.C.’s defense has the worst red zone touchdown percentage in the league (76.6%). Cleveland’s offense is fourth at scoring inside the 20 (72.4%). Give Cody Parkey the day off. For the Browns to win, they have to score. Field goals are meaningless. Kansas City has the best offense in the league, its best passing attack, and even the 16th rated rushing offense. The Browns’ defensive woes aren’t new. Simply put, they will not stop the Chiefs from scoring.
The offense will run the ball with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to keep the ball from Mahomes. The Chief defense gives up 122 a game on the ground. Overpower K.C.’s so-so defense. Though they didn’t Sunday night, Stefanski and Van Pelt should get them on the field together. It’ll take at least 40 to remain close. The RBs combined for 124 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns along with 5 catches, 82 yards, and another TD through the air against Pittsburgh. One more plea to the Browns’ offensive brass; get your two best play makers on the field at the same time.
Cross your fingers when the defense takes the field. Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill combined for 2692 yards, 192 catches, and 26 touchdowns. Hill’s speed, along with Mecole Hardman’s and Demarcus Robinson’s, and Sammy Watkins on the outside, gives the porous Browns secondary much to worry about. Denzel Ward’s return would help, but Mahomes’ weapons are massive. A significant pass rush is needed too, but the Chiefs O-line and Mahomes’ quick release equal a measly 3.67% sack percentage, 4th in the NFL. There are no holes in this offense, up against a defense littered with them.
Making the Divisional Round of the playoffs for this franchise is the thing. Savor the victory against Pittsburgh and Roethlisberger. The Chiefs are an animal for another day. An off-season shoring up the defense, along with an Odell Beckham return or trade, will arm the organization with more ammunition against Kansas City next season. As will this experience. Nothing is more important than getting the feel, for knowing what they need, instead of guessing. A playoff game in K.C. is the perfect teacher.
Kansas City 45, Cleveland 30
The Whip Around
Baltimore @ Buffalo Expect points in Buffalo Saturday night. The Ravens will run the ball and the Bills won’t be able to stop them. Baltimore knows they have to control tempo, as they’ve struggled in past playoffs from behind. Their passing game is average, and it’s still difficult to trust Lamar Jackson to make big throws in important spots. The Bills have lit up scoreboards with Josh Allen leading the 2nd best passing attack in the league, and his deep connection with Stefon Diggs unlocked Buffalo’s offense. The Ravens pass defense is good, not great, as is their pass rush. So who blinks? Buffalo looked sketchy last week against Indy, and the Ravens seem on a mission to prove they can handle the playoffs. Who do you trust more with the game on the line, Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen?
Baltimore 31, Buffalo 30
Los Angeles @ Green Bay Offense versus defense personified. The Rams again don’t know who their quarterback will be this weekend, and their offense struggled all season, regardless. Cam Akers ran for 131 over the weekend against Seattle, and he must carry L.A.’s offense again if they’re to score enough to upset the Pack at Lambeau. Green Bay is weak against the run (4.5 yards allowed per rush, 21st in the league). The Packers can rush the QB (7.11% sack rate, 7th) and Za’Darius Smith’s 12.5 sacks ranked 4th in the league, so with two injured quarterbacks and a middling passing game, its imperative the Rams run the ball and keep Aaron Rodgers on the sideline. Rodgers will finish either first or second in MVP voting. He led the league in completion percentage (70.7) touchdown passes (48) and had the league’s lowest interception rate (1.0%). He must be spectacular against the stingiest defense in the league. The Rams allowed the fewest points, total yards, and passing yards in the league. Aaron Donald, expected to play despite tearing rib cartilage last week against Seattle, will win Defensive Player of the Year for the 3rd time and disrupts everything offenses do. Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, and John Johnson III lead an air tight secondary capable of slowing Rodgers and Davante Adams, but for how long? While L.A.’s defense may not get run over, it’s hard to imagine their offense scoring enough to win.
Green Bay 24, Los Angeles 16
Tampa Bay @ New Orleans Tom Brady against Drew Brees, of course. Whichever old man weathers pressure best will win. Both teams sport excellent pass rushes (sack %: Tampa 7.03, 8th, N.O. 7.28, 6th), so quick throws will be key. That’s a problem for Tampa. Bruce Arians likes to throw long to his dangerous receivers, but Trey Hendrickson and Cameron Jordan will be in Brady’s grill all evening. The style is a better fit for the Saints, even with Brees’ arm shot. They’ll rely on possession throws to Michael Thomas and screens and runs from Alvin Kamara, the most dynamic player on the field. Though both offenses finished in the top five in scoring, defenses will decide this one. Both units force turnovers, so that battle will be key. New Orleans’ was most consistent during the season, finishing in the top five in scoring, total yards, third down percentage, rush yards, pass completion percentage allowed, pass yards, and turnovers. Brady has struggled against pressure all season, and his passer rating on deep throws is poor. Brady is the better QB, but Brees has a stronger team.
New Orleans 23, Tampa Bay 20<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">All stats courtesy of teamrankings.comAll stats courtesy of teamrankings.com