Cleveland fans deserve to be riding high after the Browns captured their first playoff win since 1994. Even better, it came over their biggest division rival and broke a streak of 17 straight losses in Pittsburgh. It got uncomfortably close at points, but Cleveland escaped unscathed after taking a 28-0 lead in the first quarter.
The team's celebration is likely already over just 12 hours afterwards, because their eyes now turn to Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs enjoyed a first-round bye again this year and watched as Cleveland took down the Steelers, securing a Sunday afternoon playoff matchup. Kansas City, owners of the best record in the league at 14-2, will embark upon their championship defense. Mahomes and his squad were not quite as dominant as their 14 wins might suggest; the last six victories of the season were all by one score. Mahomes is still Mahomes and they remain the team to beat, but they are not infallible by any means.
As is the inevitable conclusion when you have the best quarterback in football, the weakness for the Chiefs resides in their defense. Specifically their ability to stop the run. Kansas City gave up an average of 122 yards per game on the ground in 2020, which is not an extremely high number, but it isn't very good, either. Only 11 teams gave up more yards on the ground, and the Chiefs have by far the best record out of any team in the bottom 16 of rushing yards allowed per game.
The Browns are fairly well-equipped to take advantage of that weakness, boasting Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as their backfield tandem. When those two are rolling, so do the wins for Cleveland. The Browns ran for over 100 yards in 13 games this year and lost only three of those contests. A lot went right for the Browns last night, but they hit that 100-yard mark again and it played a part in allowing the team to advance.
Running the ball effectively is the only chance Cleveland has to beat Kansas City because Baker Mayfield is not going to win a shootout against Mahomes. That isn't a knock against Mayfield. It's simply the fact of the matter that nobody will win a passing duel against Mahomes. Cleveland will try to emulate the strategy the Colts employed to nearly upset Buffalo on Saturday-- win the time of possession battle with a healthy dose of run plays and try to ensure the opponent is starting with poor field position as often as possible.
One of Kansas City's losses this year came in Week 17 when everybody important was on the bench. The other came in Week 5 against the Raiders. The Chiefs gave up 144 yards on the ground and the Raiders had the ball for over 35 minutes of the contest, while KC only had possession for 24 minutes. And even then, the Chiefs only lost by four. That's the formula. If Chubb and Hunt can stay effective running the ball and Cleveland doesn't turn it over, they'll have a chance.
Kansas City obviously knows this and star defensive tackle Chris Jones will be tasked with preventing the Browns from running all over his teammates. Cleveland will be heavy underdogs for good reason. They will have to play a perfect game. Mahomes and his cohort of weapons will score. Not much anybody can do to stop that. But if the defense doesn't give up big plays and special teams coverage is strong, then the game will be there for the taking.
There are a lot of ifs, and none of that even mentions the injuries the offensive line has suffered and the ever-present possibility of more positive COVID tests taking out an important starter or two. A lot of luck will be involved. But when Hunt and Chubb are rolling, there aren't any backfields in the NFL that can match their productivity. They'll be going up against a below-average run defense. Mayfield will need to hit the open play-action passes when they appear, but make no mistake: Cleveland's hopes rest entirely upon their shoulders of their running backs.