Five things to watch as the Chiefs host the Browns

It has been 350 days since the Kansas City Chiefs (14-2) won Super Bowl LIV. In the 347 days since the championship parade — where multiple Chiefs declared they’d be back on the same stage in 2021 — the organization has prepared for the Run It Back tour.

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The tour is now set up to launch into its postseason stage. The team’s regular-season performance gifted them the easiest path to the Super Bowl out of all the AFC contenders; they got the conference’s only bye week and earned home-field advantage. On Sunday, they’ll play the Cleveland Browns (12-5) — the conference’s lowest seed remaining and a team severely impacted by COVID-19 in recent weeks.

If the Chiefs can beat the Browns on Sunday, they will take on the Buffalo Bills at Arrowhead Stadium for the AFC championship.

The Chiefs will have to beat the upstart Browns in order to host the victor of Saturday’s game. I have five things to watch in the first-ever playoff matchup between these two franchises:

1. A hampered linebacker group

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The Chiefs’ most questionable position group heading into the postseason is the linebackers. Anthony Hitchens cleared the COVID-19 protocol last week but hasn’t played since December 20. Damien Wilson returned in Week 17 from his knee injury but last played December 6 before that. Ben Niemann injured his hamstring in Week 16, and rookie Willie Gay Jr. injured his ankle in the season finale — eliminating his chances at playing on Sunday.

They won’t catch a break facing the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland totaled the fourth-most rushing attempts in the NFL, while starting running back Nick Chubb was among the league leaders in yards earned before contact — meaning the Browns’ run blocking is creating holes to the second level effectively.

Chubb has avoided the third-most tackles among NFL runners this season, and teammate Kareem Hunt has the 13th-most — making them the only pair of teammates inside the top 25, per PFF. In the receiving game, only two other backs have avoided more tackles after a reception this season than Hunt.

For a group that already had its struggles tackling in the open field, a tough-nosed Chubb and a motivated Hunt could take advantage of a unit at less than full health.

2. Keeping Patrick Mahomes clean

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The most likely way the Browns can disrupt the Chiefs’ offense is with a big day from their defensive front.

Pass rusher Myles Garrett is as good coming off the edge as they come — totaling 12 sacks in the regular season. He’ll be accompanied by interior linemen Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi, along with veteran defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn is tasked with filling the shoes of the recently-injured edge rusher Oliver Vernon — who earned nine sacks in 2020.

The talented group didn’t have a good showing in their first outing since Vernon’s injury. Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped back 68 times, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was pressured only 14 times, was not sacked, and he was only hit as he threw once. Pittsburgh made a noticeable effort to double-team Garrett and chip block him with running backs and tight ends, and his teammates weren’t able to pick up the slack.

The Chiefs need to help their offensive linemen in a similar way. If Garrett can be neutralized, the Chiefs’ pass protection should be able to handle the rest of the front.

3. L’Jarius Sneed versus Jarvis Landry

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When Cleveland isn’t handing off to their two-headed monster of a backfield duo, they’re targeting wide receiver Jarvis Landry. He leads the Browns in targets by over 30 and has more targets than the rest of the active wide receiver unit combined.

Most of his production comes from the slot: 53% of his receptions are produced from there and 58% of his receiving yards are as well. Last week, four of Landry’s five catches — including his 40-yard catch-and-run for a score — came from the slot alignment.

Since his return from injury in Week 11, Chiefs’ rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed has been the primary slot defender in Kansas City. In the 22 targets he’s seen in slot coverage, he’s allowed a 76.7 passer rating. Sneed’s quickness and speed should help in the matchup with Landry — who wins by separating from defenders with hard cuts and shiftiness.

If Sneed can contain Landry to a modest performance, there aren’t many other pass-catching weapons that can consistently impact the game like Landy can.

4. The impact of Travis Kelce

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Last time tight end Travis Kelce played in the divisional round, he had a three-touchdown performance that was as dominant of a game from his position as the NFL has ever seen. Don’t be too surprised if he has a similarly mind-blowing box score against Cleveland.

The Browns surrendered the fourth-most receptions and touchdowns to tight ends out of all NFL teams this season. They don’t have a very talented pool of players fit to cover opposing tight ends — but especially none ready for a matchup with Kelce.

Even if Cleveland dedicates both an underneath defender and a player over the top to Kelce, the veteran tight end is elusive and smart enough to defeat it. If they do effectively bottle up Mahomes’ go-to target, it should open up the intermediate area of the field for wide receiver Tyreek Hill and other pass-catchers. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins is usually the beneficiary in the postseason, but he has been announced as out for Sunday’s game.

Whether Kelce’s performance ends in a big box score for him or someone else, his impact will play a huge factor in the Chiefs’ offensive success.

5. Frank Clark unleashed

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The talented pass rush of the Chiefs hadn’t been as impressive as many would have like to see this regular season. However, they were a crucial part of the Week 16 win over the Atlanta Falcons: defensive linemen Frank Clark, Chris Jones, and Alex Okafor earned a sack — while Jones and Clark combined for five quarterback hits.

On Twitter after the game, Clark hinted to Chiefs Kingdom that the performance was a sign of things to come.

You can take Clark’s tweet as nothing more than a player being confident, but Clark’s backed up his talk as a player that rises to the occasion in the postseason. In his last five playoff games, Clark has earned at least one sack in each — including three in last year’s divisional round.

In the last three years he’s made the postseason, his pressure percentage in the postseason has been higher than his regular-season mark:

  • 2019: 10.5% pressure rate in the regular season, 15.8% in the playoffs
  • 2018: 13.8% pressure rate in the regular season, 19.2% in the playoffs
  • 2016: 12.7% pressure rate in the regular season, 21.6% in the playoffs

He was the closer last postseason; he earned crucial, late-game sacks in each of the playoff victories. He may have the opportunity to do so again if the Chiefs’ offense takes care of business and builds a formidable lead. With the injuries along the Browns’ offensive line, a pass-heavy game script to come from behind will be a great opportunity for Clark to unleash his postseason alias.

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