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Chiefs vs Browns: Week 1 NFL preview

The Cleveland Browns look to avenge their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round when the two Super Bowl contenders meet at Arrowhead Stadium in one of Week 1’s biggest games on Sunday. Read on for our full preview, predictions and key matchups to watch in this marquee duel.

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Kansas City Chiefs vs Cleveland Browns: What you need to know

Chiefs front seven vs Nick Chubb & Kareem Hunt

Kansas City Chiefs vs Cleveland Browns: What you need to know
Jan 17, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) runs the ball as Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward (35) defends during the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the Browns have the NFL’s best backfield tandem with Nick Chubb and former Chiefs rushing champion Kareem Hunt. Purely talented as those two ball-carriers are, they also get to run behind a Cleveland offensive line Pro Football Focus ranked No. 1 in the NFL in 2020.

With dubious depth at linebacker, and Chris Jones and Jarran Reed more known for their pass-rushing prowess than run defense, the Chiefs’ front seven has their work cut out to hold their own. Rookie second-round pick Nick Bolton excels as a hard-hitting run defender, but that’s a lot to ask from a first-year player.

  • Where’s Willie: Another young linebacker Kansas City has high hopes for is Willie Gay Jr. Unfortunately, it was revealed during last Tuesday’s roster cut day that Gay is dealing with a toe injury. If it is, in fact, the dreaded turf toe, that could be a serious problem for the hosts, especially when it comes to this particular personnel matchup.
  • Browns Run it Back: All five starters from that aforementioned o-line return for Cleveland and are healthy entering Week 1. If second-year left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. takes another step forward, it’s going to be mighty difficult for opponents to stifle the Browns’ rushing attack.

Advantage: Cleveland Browns

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Patrick Mahomes vs Baker Mayfield

Chiefs vs Browns: Week 1 NFL preview
Jan 17, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws a pass as Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) defends during the first half in an AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the best offenses in the NFL meet in this one. Patrick Mahomes is on track to have one of the best careers in NFL history as long as Andy Reid remains the Chiefs’ head coach, but Baker Mayfield showed in the second half of 2020 why he was worth the No. 1 overall pick, as he thrived in Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski’s scheme.

Mahomes is almost guaranteed success on any given Sunday. He’s a world-class talent. Only so much can go wrong, particularly with matchup nightmares like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill at his disposal. Thanks to the Browns’ elite rushing attack, though, Mayfield has the means to competently duel with his superior counterpart.

  • Baker’s Stable: In addition to having a second straight year in the same system as a stabilizing foundation to build upon, Mayfield also has a stable of weapons to throw to. Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Austin Hooper, David Njoku are obvious ones, but Cleveland has other skilled pass-catchers waiting in the wings as well.
  • Mahomes Magic: Whichever high-end playmakers flank Mayfield, there’s no denying Mahomes has a certain X-factor in terms of his ability to extend plays, make impossible off-platform throws and generally just inspire confidence that no matter what happens, Kansas City isn’t out of any given game.

Advantage: Kansas City Chiefs

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Denzel Ward vs Tyreek Hill

Chiefs vs Browns: Week 1 NFL preview
Jan 17, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10) runs against the Cleveland Browns during the first half in an AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

While it’ll be fascinating to see how the new-look Chiefs o-line protects Mahomes from Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney and an upgraded Browns defensive front, we’re focusing on a head-to-head duel for the ages beyond the trenches.

Among the most underrated cornerbacks in the game, Denzel Ward is a rare athlete who has the change-of-direction skills and sheer speed to even dream of keeping up with Hill. Although the Browns’ secondary is much improved from 2020 as well, Ward should draw the assignment of marking Hill for most of Sunday’s showdown.

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  • The Warden’s Burden: As many snaps as the Browns can put Ward on Hill head-to-head, especially with safety help, the better chance Cleveland has of slowing down The Cheetah. However, that’s far easier said than done. Mahomes’ ability to make plays outside the structure of the offense only increases the challenge.
  • Tyreek The Freak: When these teams met in the playoffs, Hill teed off on the Browns for eight catches and 110 yards on 10 targets, including a game-sealing reception on fourth down. Cleveland can’t let Hill shake loose so often if it wants a chance at exacting vengeance.

Advantage: Kansas City Chiefs

The bottom line: There’s been so much turnover at key positions on both rosters that it’s anyone’s guess as to how this will play out so early on. It could be a playoff preview of sorts. Chances are, the Browns will control possession with their rushing attack, but Mahomes will make some ridiculous plays down the stretch to get Kansas City the win.

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