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Here are five things to watch during the game:
1. Beware the headless NFL team
Unless you’ve just returned from a sabbatical on Uranus, you’re probably aware that on Monday, the Browns fired not only their head coach Hue Jackson, but also their offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams — yes, the former New Orleans Saints coordinator who was suspended for his part in the Bountygate scandal — is the interim head coach. Running backs coach Freddie Kitchens is the interim offensive coordinator.
Since the season began, I’ve been worried about this game. As offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Haley has always been difficult for the Chiefs to beat. It’s hard to know if that’s been more about Haley himself or the players he was directing, but Haley was certainly part of the equation.
So there’s one worry gone. But others remain.
On Monday, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said that Jackson and Haley’s firing wouldn’t significantly change their preparation, because there just wouldn’t be enough time to change the team’s schemes.
But with Kitchens calling the plays, the team’s offensive tendencies will likely be different. Still, the Chiefs may be able to get a glimpse of what Kitchens might do. According to a nice rundown on Kitchens’ resume on our sister blog Dawgs By Nature, Kitchens called the offensive plays in the fourth quarter of the Browns’ preseason victory over the Detroit Lions.
The biggest unknown, however, will be how Browns players respond to this situation.
While it is true that NFL teams don’t tend do much better when an interim head coach steps in, the first game for an interim head coach is a different story. I found an analysis showing that from 2003-2015, interim head coaches were 9-11 in their first game.
We should be familiar with this phenomenon. Although they’ve probably done their best to forget it, Chiefs fans will likely remember the last time Todd Haley was fired mid-season. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was named interim head coach, and eventually became permanent head coach. Crennel ended up 4-15 with the Chiefs, but in his first game at the helm, the Chiefs dealt the Green Bay Packers their only loss of the season.
In that game, the Chiefs’ offensive starters were Kyle Orton, Thomas Jones, Le’Ron McClain, Steve Breaston, Terrance Copper, Anthony Becht, Branden Albert, Ryan Lilja, Casey Wiegmann, Jon Asamoah and Barry Richardson.
The 2011 Chiefs didn’t win that game because they were a more talented team. They won it because they rallied around a new head coach that represented hope for the future. The 2018 Chiefs should keep that in mind.
2. Beware the opportunistic defense
If there’s one thing the Browns can do reasonably well, it’s play pass defense. Like the Chiefs, they are very good at making opposing quarterbacks inefficient — In fact, they’re better at it.
The Browns lead the NFL in opposing quarterback passer rating. They haven’t done that by limiting passing yards; the Browns have given up 11.7 yards per catch, which is about average. They’ve done it by limiting passing touchdowns and maximizing interceptions. The Browns have given up just 11 passing touchdowns — tied for fourth-best in the league — and amassed a dozen interceptions, which tops the league.
In short, if there’s one team in the league that might be able to keep Patrick Mahomes from lighting them up, it could be the Cleveland Browns. And Mahomes knows it.
“Everywhere on their defense there’s talented players,” Mahomes said on Wednesday. “They have a great defensive line that can really rush the passer and they know how to get turnovers, I mean, they go for the strips, they go for the interceptions. For us, it’s about staying within our game, playing the game we’ve been playing this entire season, not trying to force anything and just try to put some points on the board.”
Mahomes was well-informed. The Browns have recovered 10 fumbles — again, tops in the league — which adds up to 22 turnovers through eight games. Roughly one in five opposing drives end in a turnover — which is third-best in the NFL.
3. Beware the running game
For both teams, establishing the run could be a big factor in this game. Neither team is good at defending the run — the Chiefs have given up a league-worst 5.4 yards per attempt, while the Browns are ranked fifth-worst at 4.6 — so both teams may see this as an offensive opportunity.
But it will be tough for both teams to do that. At their best, neither team is particularly effective at run blocking, and the Chiefs — with backups at every interior position on the offensive line — will have to depend more on Kareem Hunt’s raw ability than they would probably prefer.
The good news for the Chiefs is that Hunt has plenty of raw ability. If the Chiefs are going to establish a running game — which will keep the Browns at least honest defending against the pass — they’ll need as much of it as they can get.
And maybe some Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins thrown in.
4. Beware the Chiefs pass rush
Here’s a piece of good news: the Browns have given up 33 sacks so far. That’s worst in the league. So the Chiefs defense — now tied for second in the league with 24 — should find some opportunities to get home.
Expect AFC Defensive Player of the Month Dee Ford to have a big game against the Browns. Whether Ford’s play this season is because he’s in a contract year or because he’s finally figured out how to be an effective pass rusher is an argument we can save for the offseason; for right now, the Chiefs need him to be effective. If Justin Houston ends up playing in this game, so much the better.
And this time, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton can afford to blitz. For all the buzz about him, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield hasn’t yet demonstrated an ability to make a defense pay for blitzing, so the Chiefs shouldn’t have to depend quite so much on the interior of the defensive line to bring pressure and rattle Mayfield.
That said, don’t count out Chris Jones. The third-year player has had a sack in four consecutive games.
5. Beware of Patrick Mahomes
Mahomes has thrown four touchdown passes in three straight games. If he does it again on Sunday, he’ll match Dan Marino’s streak of four in 1984. If he then does it against the Arizona Cardinals the following week, he’ll match Peyton Manning’s streak of five in 2004. If he gets that many against the Los Angeles Rams in Mexico City, he’ll have the longest streak ever — not just in the modern era, but in almost a century of league history.
If that happens, let’s consider what else that could mean. Mahomes would have at least 38 touchdown passes through 11 games. That would put him on pace to exceed Tom Brady’s then-record 50 in 2007, and match Peyton Manning’s current record of 55 in 2013.
For a second-year quarterback, this would an astonishing achievement.
Of course... we’re not there yet. And as I noted before, the Browns defense could quite possibly give Mahomes his toughest test of the season. But if he puts up a big game against Cleveland on Sunday, what will stand in the way of Mahomes meeting or exceeding Brady and Manning’s records?
Nothing I can see.
It’s not just that Mahomes has a rocket launcher attached to his shoulder, and the ability to make plays outside the pocket. We knew that about him on the day he was drafted. It’s also that he’s developed so quickly. Read Kent Swanson’s film review about Mahomes from Thursday. To be sure, Mahomes is making mistakes. But he already has the poise and analytical ability of a five-year pro.
The Browns defense might get the better of Mahomes on Sunday, and end his run at the four-touchdown-pass streak. But it won’t matter. Before he is finished, Mahomes will own all of Brady and Manning’s records.
All we need to do is be sure we enjoy every minute of watching it happen.