Heartbreak, But Hope. A Cleveland Browns Story

One team went for it on fourth down, the other did not. The first divisional round playoff game for the Cleveland Browns since 1995 wasn’t so simple, yet the disparity of Kevin Stefanski punting from his own 32 with 4:19 remaining in the fourth quarter and one timeout remaining on 4th and 9, versus Andy Reid going for it on 4th and 1 from their own 48 with 1:19 left in the game and his backup quarterback under center, and putting the ball in the air, was striking. It wasn’t a clear cut call for Stefanski, but Reid’s decision was unconventional, too. It’ll take guts to reach their destination, but the future in Cleveland is bright. Optimism reins for the franchise for the first time since after the 2007 season. It’s more than deserved now. The Cleveland Browns are real.

Sunday in Kansas City was as expected. The Chiefs’ offense moved at will, taking whatever they wanted from the Browns’ defense. Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill dominated, both catching 8 passes while controlling space on the field. Hill freed himself on crossing patterns, outrunning the secondary, while Kelce overpowered whoever defended him. But Baker Mayfield did enough to keep the score close. The strategy was sound, if not mismanaged. He bled the play clock under 5 seconds on most snaps, costing the team timeouts and delay-of-game penalties, in order to shorten the game. But Rashard Higgins’ 5 catches were monstrous, as was his fumble through the end zone that cost the Browns 7 points. David Njoku’s best game as a pro solidified the front office’s decision to keep him on the roster after his trade request in the off-season. An opportunity slipped away, however, when Patrick Mahomes left the game with a concussion. Despite how the future looks, a myriad of decisions await before the 2021 season begins. Improving from 11 wins to Super Bowl contender is the hardest leap an organization can make. Will Chad Henne’s 4th down completion be only a footnote to Cleveland’s resurgence, or another heartbreak? Another what-if?

The defense needs fixed. Grant Delpit, a 2nd round pick last year from LSU, tore his Achilles in training camp. He’s needed at one safety spot. Ronnie Harrison played well after being acquired from Jacksonville before the season started. He should hold down the other safety position. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward are stars on the defensive line and at cornerback. Everything else is fluid. Greedy Williams missed the entire season. Can he return next year and hold down the corner spot opposite Ward? Sheldon Richardson should be back, but he is due 12 million next season and only counts 1.6 million against the cap if he’s cut. Olivier Vernon tore an Achilles in the last game of the regular season and is a free agent, as is Larry Ogunjobi. All linebackers need replaced. Andrew Berry will use the draft and free agency to rebuild the unit, making it Super Bowl ready. Is it possible to do in one off-season?

The offensive linemen are all signed through at least 2022. The Browns have a sturdy set of tight ends and running backs. Jarvis Landry is the heart of the team, and Rashard Higgins proved he belongs. Baker Mayfield is the starting quarterback the franchise has searched for since returning in 1999. The offense will continue to be their strength in 2021, but some questions exist. Will Odell Beckham Jr. be back, or get traded? It’s complicated, and perhaps Berry’s hardest decision to make. Is his talent worth more than the 4th or 5th round pick he’s likely worth on the market, or are the headaches he causes, along with his and Mayfield’s questionable chemistry on the field, too much to deal with? Will Nick Chubb want an extension? Is the front office ready to go to work on Mayfield’s second contract?

Regardless, the team is young. They just experienced playoff football at its highest level, competing with the best team in the league, on the road, in the fourth quarter. However tough the loss seems now, it’ll pay for itself in the future. If this team is as hungry as they state, the AFC North now runs through Cleveland. The organization, which fumbled through the 21st century, is now ready to win.

All credit goes to Kevin Stefanski. Many of the actors were there in 2020. They were undisciplined, however, and raw. None knew how to win, or the sacrifices it took to do so. Stefanski’s even-tempered persona has calmed an inclement franchise, and now the talent amassed has a leader guiding it. Sunday was disappointing, yet enthralling. Football unseen in Cleveland since the 1980s reappeared, awakening a fan base desperate for a team to give back all they’ve put into it for three decades. An additional set of stories to tell, memories to make. Here we go Brownies, here we go.

AFC Championship

Buffalo vs. Kansas City An offensive shootout, if Patrick Mahomes gets cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol. The two best passing offenses in the league, both will attempt to outscore the other. Buffalo’s defense was impressive, if wind aided Saturday night against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, but Mahomes is another animal. They don’t generate enough pressure to disrupt Mahomes, and while they’ve allowed just the 8th most passing yards to opponents, Tre’Davious White and Josh Norman don’t have the speed to stay with K.C.’s receivers. Both defenses struggle to stop teams in the red zone. Buffalo (26th, 63%) and Kansas City (32nd, 77%) allow touchdowns inside the 20, another reason to expect a plethora of points Sunday night. The Chiefs’ defense is pedestrian, good at nothing. Josh Allen is now an MVP candidate with a top five receiver in the NFL to throw to in Stefon Diggs. So who scores more? If Mahomes plays, it’s hard to envision him losing a shoot-out. Allen has leapt a level this season, but trust in high leverage moments with him is still an issue. Is he good enough to go to Kansas City and outscore the Chiefs? If Mahomes misses the game, Buffalo wins. Chad Henne isn’t good enough against this Buffalo offense, even if Allen makes a few mistakes. If not, K.C. heads to their second straight Super Bowl.

Kansas City 34, Buffalo 29

NFC Championship

Tampa Bay vs. Green Bay Strong offenses versus middling defenses hold in the NFC as well. Two of the ten best quarterbacks ever, in the snow at Lambeau Field, for the first time in the playoffs, for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers gets a home game for an NFC title for the first time. Tom Brady, though playing in Tampa, is used to cold weather games with meaning. Rodgers is the likely league MVP, perhaps coming off his greatest season. 70% completions, 48 touchdowns. Davante Adams established himself as one of the best wideouts in the game (115 catches, 18 touchdowns). What will Bucs’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ strategy be? Bowles likes to blitz (fifth this season in blitz frequency), but Rodgers will feast if he sends extra defenders on Sunday. Tampa needs to generate pressure up front, and Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaq Barrett, and Ndamukong Suh are capable. Containing Aaron Jones is a must, and Tampa led the league in defending the run (80 yards per game). It’s hard to pin down what you’re getting from them, however. In seven games, they’ve given up at least 27 points. In five others, less than 17. Hard to count on a brilliant performance against Rodgers.

After struggling early in Tampa, Brady has caught fire. He’s Pro Football Focus’ top rated quarterback since Week 14 (94.3) and leads the league in yards per attempt (9.7), touchdowns (14), and passing yards (1714) during that time. Za’Darius Smith is Green Bay’s only reliable pass rusher, so they’ll lean more on corner Jaire Alexander and safety Adrian Amos to curb Tampa’s passing game. Tampa’s running game is putrid (97 yards per game, 27th) so expect little on the ground. This game is Brady’s. He has to carry the offense to win a shootout in Lambeau. Against any other opponent, you’d like his odds.

Green Bay 34, Tampa Bay 32

All stats courtesy of teamrankings.com

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