Editor’s note: As we head into Sunday’s Divisional round playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cleveland Browns, we welcome Executive Editor Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature — our sister SBNation site covering the Browns — for Five Questions with the Enemy.
1) What has Sunday’s win done for this franchise and the city of Cleveland?
It has been such a joyous feeling for the city of Cleveland. Granted, we also had a “cloud nine” moment when the Cavaliers won the NBA Championship back in 2016, but the Browns have the most hardcore fanbase in town. To get our first playoff win since the franchise returned in 1999, in our first playoff trip since the 2002 season, and to do it against our rivaled Steelers in the way that we did it? It has been so exciting.
I don’t mean to come off like I’ll be happy if the Browns lose on Sunday to the Chiefs, but regardless of how that game goes, the 2020 season will have been considered a huge success for the Browns. We found our head coach of the future, the switch has flipped for Baker Mayfield as he starts to establish himself as a top quarterback in this league, and the Browns also have many of their key players locked up for a while.
2) Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb are the best 1-2 punch since who? And how important are they to any success the Browns will have in Kansas City?
If we’re just talking about the Browns’ best 1-2 punch, then it was before my time: the mid-1980s with Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack, who each rushed for 1,000+ yards in 1985.
The most impressive thing that I think Stefanski has done with the Browns’ offense is his utilization of both Chubb and Hunt as integral parts of this offense. It is easier said than done when you have two running backs of their caliber on the roster. How do you make sure each back gets enough touches, while still ensuring you let a running back get into a groove?
Having a great run blocking offensive line has helped matters, but Stefanski will often use Chubb to begin a drive — and if he’s had several carries in a row or just broke a big gain, Hunt will come in to replace him. Or Hunt may come in on third-and-long situations. Using Hunt when the team just entered the red zone is also a popular choice, as he has a skill for slicing through defenders in that area of the field — as evidenced by his 11 touchdowns during the regular season and his two touchdowns a week ago.
They have to have success against the Chiefs, because even though Cleveland can partake in a shootout, the Browns’ high-scoring approach usually still includes their backs finding big holes on the ground and thriving from screen passes.
3) If need be, can Baker Mayfield hang with Patrick Mahomes in a shootout?
That’s a tough task to ask for, because I think of Patrick Mahomes as the gold standard in the NFL right now: the quarterback who will get the last laugh/always deliver in every single clutch moment. He should shred our defense.
But... with how well the Browns have played offensively, I do think Baker Mayfield can respectably hang with him in a shootout. One of the Browns’ issues is that they’ll have an amazing 2-3 quarters of football in a game, but then there will be one quarter where the offense goes three-and-out for three straight drives, allowing the other team back in it. I don’t know how you get away with that against Mahomes and the Chiefs.
One thing I will say about Mayfield is that what he has been doing has not been a fluke. His footwork has improved tremendously this season. For the first half of the year, Stefanski would strategically get him moving outside the pocket for big plays, because tall defensive linemen weren’t in his line of sight over the middle. But over the past month or two, Mayfield has been finding the right moments to include some throws over the middle, leading to important yardage. I’m even talking about silly 5-yard dumpoff passes that lead to yards after the catch. Also, he has gained a much better “feel” for when to scramble for first-down yardage in key moments. He is gaining momentum every week.
4) How would you game-plan for the Chiefs?
Forgive me for not being able to give unique answers here, but I don’t know.
I know Kansas City has been involved in a lot of one-score victories lately, which should make me feel like they are beatable. But I’ve always been in awe of Mahomes’ ability, Tyreek Hill’s speed, Travis Kelce always catching everything, etc. I also always enjoy the bit of creativity the Chiefs deploy each week.
When I look back at the Browns’ big start against the Titans earlier this season — and last week against the Pittsburgh — the offense scored five touchdowns in the first half of each of those games. But it was the defensive takeaways on the first several series of each game that just stunned the opposition and allowed Cleveland to hang on. Therefore, I’d say, “Hey, let’s really try to be aggressive defensively to start this game.” Take chances on run blitzes. Have one guy use a lot of his energy on a bull rush while someone else blitzes off the edge. Have the safeties shade toward Hill, but also allow the cornerbacks to try taking a chance jumping a route in coverage as a linebacker drops in coverage. Basically, we know we can’t stop the Chiefs from scoring, so why let them methodically drive up-and-down the field? Be risk-taskers and see if you get lucky.
Offensively, I think the Browns should stay in their element to what has worked for them. Use the offensive linemen on pulling guard situations to create big holes for the running backs, have Mayfield throw the ball to the outside with some bootleg action, and try for some big plays downfield if the play-action game starts working.
5) How does this play out?
I picked the Browns to beat the Steelers last week, but I admitted that a big part of that prediction was because we hadn’t made the playoffs in 18 years, so how could I live with myself picking our division rival to win?
However, the COVID-19 situation was a big reason for my hesitancy last week. All of those players are back now, and the Browns are as confident as they’ll ever be. If the threat of being eliminated two weeks ago — and then last week’s adversity — didn’t faze them, I don’t think the stigma of the Chiefs will, either.
However, my objective side still believes the Chiefs’ offense will win in a shootout. I don’t have a score prediction at the moment, because who knows? My fandom might take over and have me pick a silly upset again on Dawgs By Nature.
Either way, here’s to hoping for a fun game on Sunday.