NFL 2020 Divisional Round: Browns at Chiefs

The Chiefs begin their run to end the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion. After a historic streak of close wins and the dreaded “playoff rest in Week 17 followed by a bye” combo, should the Chiefs be on upset alert against a hungry Cleveland team?

For previews of Saturday’s games, click here.

Browns at Chiefs (-10)

The last time we saw Patrick Mahomes, he was just getting by the Falcons in an uncharacteristic 17-14 victory. That was three weeks ago from this Sunday. The Chiefs have since rested starters in a 38-21 blowout against the Chargers to end their record 60-game streak of not losing by more than eight points, and then had a bye week.

Meanwhile, the last time we saw the Browns, they were embarrassing the Steelers with a 28-0 start in the first quarter before winning their first playoff game since the 1994 season. This week their head coach, Kevin Stefanski, is back from COVID-19 and so is Denzel Ward, their best corner.

Doesn’t this 10-point spread feel a bit off considering the Chiefs just set an NFL record with seven straight wins by fewer than seven points? No other team has ever had more than five straight. The Chiefs have not beaten anyone by more than six points since the lowly Jets in Week 8, which was before the election if you need help with how long ago that was. Cleveland’s only losses by more than 10 this year were early-season blowouts in Baltimore (38-6) and Pittsburgh (38-7), but clearly the Browns closed the gap on those teams later in the year.

Look, I get it.

The Chiefs’ spread is -10 and double-digit favorites in the playoffs are 60-13 SU (.822) and 43-29-1 ATS (.596) in the Super Bowl era. They are 50-7 (.877) at home. The Browns were outscored 37-20 in the final three quarters in Pittsburgh and took advantage of a total gift on the opening botched snap for a touchdown and got two more tipped ball interceptions.

Baker Mayfield probably isn’t going to have another game where he isn’t even pressured once, though that offensive line is very good.

With Tennessee eliminated, the Browns have the worst remaining defense in the playoffs, ranked 23rd in points per drive allowed and have already allowed 34+ points seven times (six on the road).

Oh yeah, Mahomes is 23-1 in his last 24 starts, Andy Reid is 25-5 after a bye week, and the Chiefs have yet to score fewer than 31 points in the playoffs with Mahomes at quarterback. They also set an NFL record this year by beating five teams with a winning record on the road.

By now, you just expect the Chiefs to find a way to outscore the opponent and come away with the win. They won so many tight games this year and it was usually thanks to the offense taking over in the final minutes with a one-score lead and either expanding to a two-score lead or running out the clock. The 2020 Chiefs may have had the best four-minute offense season in NFL history.

The Chiefs did not blow a fourth quarter lead this season, but the offense did so well in close games that the defense rarely had to defend a 4QC/GWD attempt. When the offense failed to close the game out against Carolina, the defense had to stop the Panthers from a game-winning field goal. Thankfully, Teddy Bridgewater was awful in those moments all year (0-9 record), and the Panthers used the 86 seconds they were given to only set up a 67-yard field goal that was missed.

That was the closest call for the Chiefs and the defense’s best effort to save a game. Mahomes left Derek Carr only 28 seconds in Las Vegas when he forced a game-ending interception. Mahomes left Denver’s Drew Lock only 64 seconds, needing a touchdown after the Chiefs added a field goal, when the defense intercepted him too. Matt Ryan drove the Falcons down the field for at least overtime, but Younghoe Koo missed a short field goal to end that one.

I feel that the Kansas City defense is most responsible for why this team has not pulled away with ease in any game in over two months. No matter how well the game begins, it just seems like every one of them comes down to Mahomes with the ball late and in a one-score game.

Throw in the potential for rust, the shaky offensive line of recent weeks, the running game not always reliable, and this defense not being tested enough, and I think it’s a potential recipe for disaster this postseason.

Then again, how could anyone start a Super Bowl run worse than the Chiefs last year when they fell behind 24-0 to the Texans in the AFC divisional round?

Once the Chiefs got past the self-inflicted wounds, they dominated Houston and won 51-31, a game that wasn’t even close in the fourth quarter.

I would be far more worried for the Chiefs if it were Baltimore instead of Cleveland. Mayfield will need to have an exceptional game. I pointed out the zero pressures the

Steelers got on Sunday, but they also had zero takeaways and the Browns had two 40-yard touchdown catches with at least 30 YAC on each. In the regular season, the Browns had one pass play, let alone any touchdowns, with 30+ YAC. Just one.

Unusual things can happen in this league, but the Browns have to come in prepared for this one like they were against the Steelers and their road win in Tennessee. It is going to take points for sure as the over/under is 57 points. In NFL playoff history in games with a total of at least 54 points, the over is 10-5 and the home team is 10-5 SU.

The 2020 Browns have already tied the NFL record for most games in a season (playoffs included) where both teams scored 30 points. The 2018 Chiefs are one of six teams on that list, but something in Cleveland’s favor is they are 5-1 in these games.

Maybe it will be 66-59 like a classic meeting in college between Mayfield and Mahomes, won by Baker’s Oklahoma team.

That game had 10 straight touchdown drives in the second half before Oklahoma finally got one more first down on the ground with Joe Mixon to end it and deny Mahomes one last chance with the ball.

Oddly enough, scoring a shitload of points and denying Mahomes the ball at the end has carried over to be the best way to beat him in the NFL too.

Mahomes is 42-9 as a starter in the NFL. He has led the Chiefs to at least 22 points in 49 of his 51 starts. Outside of that weird 19-13 loss to the Colts in 2019, he has only lost when the opponent has scored more than 28 points.

I compiled a couple of charts to show just how hard it is to beat Mahomes and the Chiefs and what type of benchmarks it usually takes to come out with the win.

Before I go into the details, this second chart shows the 24 games where teams scored at least 20 points on the Chiefs and still lost. You’ll notice a lot more red here to indicate that they didn’t achieve the benchmarks I’ve laid out.

Keep in mind we are making a series of comparisons between samples of nine games (Table 1) and 24 games (Table 2), but I cannot help the fact that Mahomes is only this far into his career and we already talk about him in such historical context. I also understand that lots of these things would be helpful in beating any team in the NFL, but it’s just more pronounced with the Chiefs in the Mahomes era.

I’ll go over each section of the charts and how the 2020 Browns fit into this.

Opp Rec (+PO)

You can see the opponent’s final record and the playoffs are included in parenthesis if they made it. Seven of Mahomes’ nine losses are to playoff teams. Only those pesky 2019 Colts had a losing record while the Raiders finished .500 this year thanks to choking away that Miami game. This isn’t really an indicator of anything, but just providing context to the games listed. This is common sense that it will usually take a playoff team to beat a team like the Chiefs.

Fortunately for Cleveland, the Browns are a 12-5 playoff team this year and not the 7-8-1 team they were in 2018 when they lost 37-21 to the Chiefs.

Opp Scored > 28?

Did the opponent score more than 28 points on the Chiefs? Clearly you must score at least 29 to get the job done. Derek Carr had the game of his career this year and put up 40 points in Mahomes’ only loss in the last 24 games. In Table 2, only seven of those 24 teams scored more than 28.

The Browns have scored at least 32 points in eight of 17 games this season, so they are more than capable.

Opp TOP > 35 MIN?

I usually don’t talk about time of possession much because it just ends up being a result of playing well on both sides of the ball rather than something you can strive for on purpose. However, keeping the ball away from a great quarterback should always be high on the priority list for a team.

The Chiefs actually lost time of possession in eight of the nine games in Table 1, but in terms of letting the team have the ball 35 minutes or more, that happened two-thirds of the time. It only happened three times in the other 24 games, all wins by the Chiefs. That difference can be made up at the end of the game when your offense is the one finishing things off instead of Mahomes.

The Browns finished fifth in TOP/drive this season, right behind the Chiefs. The Panthers were second and they gave the Chiefs fits as you can see in Table 2 in one of the closest games on that list that was nearly a loss.

KC 8+ PEN? and KC 60+ PEN YD?

The next two columns are looking at penalties on the Chiefs. There has never been convincing evidence that the number of penalties or penalty yardage has a significant correlation to team performance. Mostly you just want to avoid the real costly ones that take away touchdowns or extend drives for the opponent.

Kansas City is a perfect example of this as the two New England losses in 2018 were the only losses where they did not have at least eight penalties or 60 yards of penalties. However, what’s the most memorable penalty in Kansas City history? Dee Ford lining up offsides by a centimeter in the AFC Championship Game, wiping out a game-ending interception thrown by Tom Brady in the final minute. Bummer.

However, Chiefs fans this year know their penalties can be costly. In the Raiders loss, they had two touchdowns wiped out by holding and offensive pass interference. The wins over Tampa Bay and Denver were a lot closer late after bad penalties for the Chiefs into third-and-forever situations. The Chiefs could do a better job with penalties than they do.

In the 24 wins, the Chiefs only hit eight penalties 10 times and 60+ penalty yards nine times, so they were better in those games at keeping the flags down.

Opp Rush for > 170 yds?

I feel like this one was a little controversial when I was selling it before Super Bowl LIV, but the fact is you usually have to run the ball well on the Chiefs to beat them. Two-thirds of the losses again were when the opponent rushed for at least 170 yards, and the Rams in that 54-51 game were the only team that did it without rushing for at least 119 yards.

I know I raised the bar high there, but it was still hit six times in nine losses while in the 24 wins in Table 2, only seven teams crossed 170 yards. Mahomes needed a fourth-quarter comeback in three of those seven games.

For the teams that beat the Chiefs, it’s not like they were just piling up those rushing yards in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. No game in the NFL has been out of reach for Mahomes yet. These teams used the run to help facilitate their scoring, sometimes they hit big runs (like the Titans win in 2019), and to keep Mahomes off the field.

Can a Cleveland team with five 190-yard rushing games this season run well on the Chiefs? I believe so. Nick Chubb is great, and we know Kareem Hunt is viewing this as a revenge game, even if he only has his damn self to blame for the Chiefs cutting him.

The Chiefs will need a big effort to contain Chubb and Hunt in this one. The good news is the Chiefs are 5-0 this season when they allow 150+ rushing yards, never allowing more than 20 points in those games. But they’re not playing the Broncos, Brian Hoyer, Justin Herbert in his first game, or the Ravens (Lamar struggles with KC) in this one.

The Chiefs rank 32nd in red zone touchdown rate allowed this year (76.6%). That is not encouraging against a Cleveland offense that was third (73.6%) in that category this year. That’s why I love Chubb and Hunt to both score touchdowns in my Same Game Parlays for this one.

The Browns won’t set any rushing records in this one, but a long Chubb run in the fourth quarter could be the difference in another Super Bowl ring and a one-and-done.

Opp Gained 450+ Yds?

Did the opponent gain at least 450 yards of offense? Again, just more common sense that you need a lot of points to beat the Chiefs, and that’s something that requires significant yards unless you have the Chicago Bears D/ST in one of their random playoff years.  

The Chiefs allowed 450+ yards in two-thirds of their losses. They did it in only four of the 24 wins listed.

The Browns were 3-1 this year when they hit 450 yards, only losing that 47-42 game to Baltimore.

KC TO?

How many turnovers did the Chiefs have? I often speak of the “obligatory Chiefs fumble” and you can see that was really born in 2019 when they lost a big fumble in those losses to the Colts, Texans, and Titans (returned for a touchdown in that one).

The Chiefs had a turnover in seven of their nine losses and multiple turnovers in four of the games. In the 24 wins, they only had four games with multiple turnovers and eight games without a turnover.

Half of Mahomes’ six interceptions this season came in Miami when he had two tipped balls and Xavien Howard made a one-handed catch. Maybe he got it out of his system that day. Week 16 against Atlanta was the only other time the Chiefs had multiple turnovers this year, though one of them was a horrible decision to call a trick play on fourth down that led to Sammy Watkins throwing the pick.

Like I said earlier, the Browns had some great fortune on three of their five takeaways against the Steelers after a season where they were mediocre at best at taking the ball away. Instead of getting a pick, Cleveland’s best bet may be Myles Garrett getting a strip sack this week. He is nursing a shoulder injury though, but that Chiefs offensive line has been shaky at best down the stretch.

Denied or Stopped PM Late?

These last two columns in the charts perhaps tell each game’s story the best. No matter how well the game started or what you did well, can you stop Mahomes late in the game? Can you flat out deny giving him the ball last or in the final minutes?

When the Chiefs have lost in Table 1, it’s usually more of a denial (the tan green cells) of Mahomes than a flat-out stop. Only the Rams in that 54-51 game stopped him cold by getting two picks late, and I use “cold” lightly as he did throw a go-ahead touchdown pass with 2:47 left.

The 2019 Texans and 2020 Raiders ran out the clock on him, denying him that final drive with the ball. The 2018 Patriots twice beat him on the final snap, scoring last after getting the coin flip and ball in overtime in the AFC Championship Game. Philip Rivers threw that game-winning two-point conversion with four seconds left in 2018, basically the last play there. The 2018 Seahawks and 2019 Colts extended to a two-score lead in the last 2:30. Mahomes answered with a score both times, but not enough time left and the onside kicks failed. Finally, the 2019 Titans left Mahomes only 17 seconds, but he still set up a 52-yard field goal that was blocked to end the game.

When I say Mahomes doesn’t lose, he just runs out of time, I have the facts on my side.

In the 24 wins, that’s when he has put teams away late if the game was still close (one score). One of the six games that wasn’t close was Cleveland in 2018. The Browns could do no better than a 13-point deficit a play into the fourth quarter, which Mahomes immediately answered with a field goal and a 37-21 final.

In the other 18 games, Mahomes led seven game-winning drives. Four times he extended the lead to two scores. Mahomes ran out the clock fully four times, and ran it down from over four minutes to just 23 seconds in Baltimore this year.

The only two teams to stop him were Denver (2019) and that Carolina game I’ve talked about already. He still threw two touchdowns in the fourth quarter against Carolina, but it was that late three-and-out that could have been costly if the Panthers were able to get a closer field goal attempt. Against Denver, Mahomes didn’t score in the quarter, but the Broncos’ offense was inept and by the time they got it last, only four seconds remained for a 4QC/GWD opportunity.

If you want to beat Mahomes, you can’t let him have the ball last. End things with your own four-minute offense. With Cleveland’s running game and Mayfield’s recent emphasis on running more, they could do that.

Conclusion

So there it is. To beat Mahomes and the Chiefs, you just have to score a lot of points, gain a lot of yards on the ground and overall, hope for some breaks in the turnovers and penalties departments, and even then you better deny him the ball at the end of the game.

Got all that, Cleveland? I hope it is an exciting shootout and not a rout, but I just do not see the Browns pulling it off unless the Chiefs have another very uncharacteristic performance.

If my final score looks familiar, it’s because I picked it on purpose.

Final: Chiefs 38, Browns 33

2 thoughts on “NFL 2020 Divisional Round: Browns at Chiefs

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