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AFC Divisional Round playoff preview: Browns at Chiefs

Viewers can watch the broadcast live on CBS at 3:05 p.m. ET on Sunday as well as stream live on the NFL App and Yahoo Sports app.

Browns vs. Chiefs: The Backstory

The Cleveland Browns are in the Divisional Round for the first time since the 1994 season, and they're hitting the road to face a giant.

Cleveland is no longer David to the looming Goliath, thanks to a long-awaited release from the clutches of a COVID-19 issue that had decimated the Browns' roster in recent weeks. Denzel Ward is back to take over as Cleveland's No. 1 corner, reinforcing a group that desperately needed him, but the challenge they face won't be countered by simply sending the Browns' best corner out to rejoin his teammates. Kansas City boasts the NFL's No. 1 overall offense and top passing offense, powered by the superhuman feats of Patrick Mahomes and accompanied by a receiving corps that features an embarrassment of speed and an All-Pro tight end who earned the honor by unanimous vote.

The Browns are again the underdog, and this time, it won't be as simple as unseating a longtime divisional bully. They'll have to take down the reigning champions.

Kansas City returns to the field at full strength for the first time since Week 16, meaning the Chiefs will have to shake off nearly three weeks' worth of rust in a playoff setting. They have an advantageous matchup on paper, bringing their top-tier passing offense to a matchup against Cleveland's 22nd-ranked passing defense. As long as the Chiefs have the ball, they'll have a good chance of victory.

Will that be enough? Sunday will provide us with the answer.

Under pressure

Browns CB Terrance Mitchell: Getting Ward back is massive for the Browns and has to be a bit of a relief to Mitchell, who's filled in at Cleveland's No. 1 corner spot for the last two weeks. He won't find this week's task any easier, though, as the Chiefs have plenty of receiving weapons beyond its top target, Tyreek Hill. Mitchell must play tight coverage, limit big gains and act like the No. 1 corner he's been pretending to be for the last two weeks if the Browns hope to contain the Chiefs' explosive offense.

Chiefs DL Chris Jones: Kansas City's offense can carry it to a ton of wins, but the Chiefs haven't held up their end of the bargain on the defensive side. There's a reason Kansas City hasn't won a game by double digits since Week 8, which feels like a lifetime ago. As Kansas City's best defensive lineman, Jones carries the weight of being responsible for two facets of the Chiefs' defensive efforts: plugging up gaps against the run, and penetrating Cleveland's pass blocking to get to the quick-firing Mayfield. Achieving one should force the Browns out of their rhythm, significantly changing the game. But with the Chiefs ranking in the bottom half in both sacks and against the run, it will be on Jones to live up to his reputation to impact the outcome.

Matchup to watch

Browns' passing game versus Chiefs' blitz: We could say Baker Mayfield is under pressure above, but he overcame such a belief last week against Pittsburgh in an offense expertly game-planned by quarantined head coach Kevin Stefanski, which called for Mayfield to get the ball out quickly to counter Pittsburgh's pressure. The approach worked marvelously, with Mayfield posting a 3-0 TD-INT ratio when blitzed. Kansas City will have to do better when blitzing, something it likes to do plenty, sending the heat at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL (38.9 percent of dropbacks). A similar gameplan can work for Cleveland, which should put Kansas City on its heels and open up the running game. If the Chiefs get home frequently, though, the Browns are in for a long day.

Final thought

I picked the Chiefs in this one because of their sky-high offensive ceiling, which bodes well against a Browns defense that has been anything but stifling for most of the season. Cleveland is effective at forcing turnovers, but gives up plenty of yards and points in between, and can't bank on the Chiefs' offense (tied for fourth best in the NFL in giveaways) to make the same mistakes that doomed the Steelers. This one will come down to whether the Browns can control the time-of-possession battle and keep the ball out of Mahomes' hands. The Browns are built to do this, but on-paper matchups and on-field action are two vastly different things. Another upset is possible for the Browns -- it's just going to require clean play and a couple lucky breaks to down the champs.

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