The AFC divisional matchup at Arrowhead is setting up to be one of the highest-scoring games of the postseason, and both teams are prepared to put up big numbers.
The time has come for Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City to begin their postseason — and officially begin their “Run It Back” tour — in the form of an emphatic Cleveland team hot off a huge win over their division rivals.
Sunday’s matchup will be the 27th time the two franchises have met each other before, with the Chiefs ahead in the series 13-11-2, most recently the Chiefs beat Baker Mayfield and the Browns back in Week 9, 2018 by a score of 37-21.
This will also be the second meeting between Mahomes and Baker Mayfield, one being in college and the other being in ’18. Both were filled with high-caliber arm talent and one set an FBS record for 1,708 total yards of offense.
Even with Cleveland looking as dominant as they did against the Steelers in the Wild Card matchup, the Chiefs are favored by 10 points (according to My Bookie). This startled some people at first, especially considering the Chiefs haven’t beat a team by more than one possession since Week 8 versus the Jets.
This game features so much offensive firepower that it’s hard to think either team will stay below 28-30 points, which is why the Browns-Chiefs game has the highest over/under of any playoff team this weekend (57.5). I(f either team gets hot there is a chance a blowout could be possible.
With that, here are my predictions for the key players in the game, followed by my score prediction, all with explanations and reasonings below them.
Patrick Mahomes: 389 passing yds, 48 rushing yds, 4 TDs, 1 INT
Patrick Mahomes’ “slump” will seemingly disappear into nothingness and faded memories as he finally begins to unload the ball like he hasn’t done since mid-season and last postseason.
The Browns’ defense will bring pressure up the middle and around the edges, especially with Myles Garrett, who is 6th in sacks and T-3rd in forced fumbles, and that will force Mahomes to do something special — much like he’s been doing since his first career start.
Mahomes has another benefit aiding him: Andy Reid. Reid after a bye week is something entirely different and impossible to predict from the other team’s perspective, he’s imaginative with the play-calling, he lets it rip and he gets out to early leads, and it shows in his record after bye weeks (5-2 in the playoffs, 19-3 in regular season).
Much like 80% of Kansas City’s games this year, the Chiefs and Mahomes will get into the spirit of their high-flying offense early and strike fast — like an 80-yard bomb to Tyreek or a Hardman slant that turns into 40+ yards — and methodically, before letting their foot off the gas and allowing the run game to take over the field.
In the first half, Mahomes will have over 180 yards passing and at least two of his four TDs heading into the tunnel. He’ll try to come out of the half slinging as he did in the first 30 minutes, which will lead to the one INT due to the defense planning for it based on his earlier performances.
In the end, Cleveland’s defense is coming into Sunday ranked 22nd against the pass (according to Lineups) and they are going to have to play like a defense ranked in the top-five for 60 minutes in order to keep Mahomes from dominating this game like he tends to do in the playoffs.
Baker Mayfield: 318 passing yards, 27 rushing yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs
Baker has been on an up-and-down slope all season, especially through the air in big games, for instance, he’s had his two best passing games against playoff teams — @ TEN (334 yds) & vs BAL (343 yds). Meanwhile, he’s had two of his worst games also come against playoff teams — @ PIT (119 yds) & vs. IND (2 INTs) — basically, he either shows up or he doesn’t when real competition comes knocking.
While he will still have one of his best passing days of the year, it will be due mainly in part to the Chiefs’ preparation for the dual-threat running game he has behind him. The play fakes, flee-flickers, and screen passes will rack up his yardage through the air but he will also have to rely on those plays when he finds himself down early or in the second half.
The Chiefs secondary is better than many tend to give them credit for also, overall they are middle-of-the-road when it comes to passing stats against them — (14th in passing yds, 20th in passing TDs, 12th in completed passes) — but it’s easy to forget that the Chiefs also have 16 INTs (5th) and a 62.7% completion percentage against them (6th).
With that being said, the Browns will get a few good punches in on Kansas City, especially when Hunt and Chubb facilitate good drives, and Baker could “wake up feeling dangerous.” In the end, it won’t matter because Mayfield is simply too inconsistent and struggles against good secondaries.
Tyreek Hill: 9 rec, 134 yds receiving, 45 yds rushing, 1 TD
When defenses are planning for Kansas City’s offense, the main threat to neutralize is almost always going to be Hill, and the Browns will do a good job of that early — allowing a few slants and dink-and-dunk plays — but it only takes one good play to get Hill 60+ allotted yards and a score, and Mahomes will try to get a few of those plays out of Hill against this weaker secondary.
Also, the Chiefs use pre-snap motion better than any team in the NFL and Hill will be the receiving end of a couple of confusion-causing motion plays which will lead to the rushing yards, as well as a few large chunk plays due to his insane speed.
Hill will likely go up against Denzel Ward who’s ranked 56th in receptions allowed, and while Ward is a bright light in the Cleveland defense, he’s simply no match for the speed, hands, and football IQ of Hill.
Kareem Hunt: 13 carries, 8 catches, 54 total yds, 1 TD
Hunt’s return to Kansas City is “personal,” as he stated Sunday night — I don’t know what KC did either, don’t worry you’re not alone — and his “revenge” game will be thwarted by the rested stars on the Chiefs defense, especially Frank Clark and Chris Jones, who both love to trash talk as well.
Much like how defenses plan around Hill, Kelce, and Mahomes when preparing for KC, the teams preparing for Cleveland plan around Hunt and Chubb, and the Chiefs are no different, especially after their rout of Pittsburgh on all three sides of the ball last week.
Hunt’s singular TD will come in the red zone because Mayfield is the type of player to get the ball to the teammate that wants it most — that could be the reason he’s better without OBJ — but that TD will be Hunt’s emotional peak of the season.
Hunt will be disappointed at the loss, especially after the hype around his return to Arrowhead, but he should be more disappointed at his actions two years ago which kept him — and the Chiefs — from winning a Super Bowl in 2019.
Nick Chubb: 17 carries, 4 receptions, 109 total yds, 2 TDs
Chubb will have more production on the ground than Hunt will, not because he wants it more or because his opportunities will be better, but because he’s just a better runner through-and-through.
Chubb is ranked 9th in yards after contact, even after missing four games, and because of that the Chiefs need to get their missed tackles situation under control — especially Dirty Dan Sorenson who leads the team with 14 this season — or else Chubb could turn a 3-yard play into a 30-yard gain.
With Chubb’s ability to break tackles and move the line of scrimmage with the raw strength of his legs, the Browns will convert most, if not all, of their short 4th down attempts (KC has 7th-worst 4D defense) and short-yardage red zone attempts (KC has the worst RZ TD% in the league) and Chubb will look elite.
After a strong first half on the ground the Chiefs defense will make adjustments — just like DC Spagnuolo and the Chiefs have done exceptionally well for most of the season — and Chubb, as well as Hunt, will be disarmed for the most part.
Travis Kelce: 11 receptions, 132 yds, 1 TD
Kelce is going to do what he always does: find the holes in the defense and expose them.
This is natural for Kelce and Mahomes, it’s the reason he’s so dangerous — more dangerous than any other TE in the league — and the Browns mediocre pass defense will be exposed like the teams before.
With consistent 8-10 yard gains — Kelce averages 13.7 yards per reception according to Pro Football Reference — the Chiefs offense will continue to move down the field, eventually getting the ball to Kelce in the endzone like Mahomes likes to do this season (Kelce has 11 TDs — a career high).
Kelce comes in clutch when he needs to, and he’s definitely the go-to guy on 3rd down, but it’s impossible to predict when he’ll go off and when he’ll stay quieter than usual. Kelce in the playoffs, however, is a different Kelce.
In fact, in the last two AFC divisional games (’19 & ’20), Kelce has averaged 8.5 receptions, 121 yds & 1.5 TDs (3 in last year’s comeback win over Houston). If he’s going to break out a monster game, it seems it will be during the first week of the Chiefs postseason.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire: 11 carries, 3 receptions, 63 total yds
Edwards-Helaire has been itching for more chances to show why he was the Chiefs’ first pick this past draft, and the playoffs are the perfect opportunity for him to show what he’s made of.
With that being said, he is coming off a rather lucky injury — “luck” meaning it could have been a lot longer before we saw him in action again — and the Chiefs will most likely not give him as many reps as he might have gotten without suffering a high-ankle sprain.
Reid and the Chiefs will look to use him sparingly if Kansas City gets off to a hot start and takes an early lead; if the game seems tight, or the passing game is not working for some reason, then they may look to get him involved a bit more, but for safety’s sake the Chiefs should limit his snap count.
Le’Veon Bell: 13 carries, 2 receptions, 55 total yds
Bell was brought in for two big reasons: to be a great backup in case Edwards-Helaire were to get injured & to perform in the playoffs (or at least become a great decoy to take attention off other key players in the playoffs). This is the time that he can check all three boxes and earn the $1.69 million he signed for.
He’ll be a great addition to the passing game, especially when the pass rush consisting of Garrett and Olivier Vernon pressures Mahomes into checkdowns. Even when he’s not even being targeted, he’s a great distraction that can be used to KC’s benefit.
Overall, he won’t look like the Bell we all feared and prepared for back in Pittsburgh, but he’ll carry enough times and gain enough yards to make an impact. Hopefully, he can find the end zone in a playoff game for the first time in four years.
Final Score: Chiefs 41 – Browns 32
The game could go one-of-two ways: Chiefs go off early and have a major lead they let sizzle down to a close game. Or they could play a close game all the way through and rely heavily on Mahomes to keep the defense off the field — either way the Chiefs are well-versed in close wins and good outings against above-average teams.
Chiefs overcome any and all adversity better than all other NFL teams. That will show itself at some point in the game, and when that happens watch out for Mahomes to sling it to someone like Byron Pringle or Nick Keizer. If the Chiefs can get over this running defense then they will be just one win away from running it all the way back to the Super Bowl.