Kansas City is headed back to the AFC Championship Game, but it wasn't without a fight from Cleveland. Playing much of the second half without an injured Patrick Mahomes, the top-seeded Chiefs fended off the Browns for a 22-17 Divisional Round win on Sunday. With the victory, the Chiefs will host the second-seeded Bills for a trip to Super Bowl LV.
1) The playoffs require resilience, and boy, did these two teams bring semi-truck loads of it to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. Kansas City came out firing, grabbing a 13-3 lead before the Browns could blink and entering a cruising speed that had the Chiefs poised to run away to a win. But the Browns responded, leading a drive that ended just inches from a touchdown when Rashard Higgins dove toward the end zone and fumbled the ball through it for a touchback. The outcome could have deflated Cleveland and given Kansas City tons of runway for a takeoff into the beautiful skies of a blowout victory, but that flight was delayed indefinitely by the Browns' resolve. Baker Mayfield overcame a second half-opening interception to lead an eight-play, 77-yard touchdown drive to cut Kansas City's lead to 19-10, and followed that with an 18-play, 75-yard march to make it a five-point game with plenty of time left in the fourth. In this moment, Kansas City's ability to overcome adversity rose to the forefront. Backup Chad Henne was forced into action due to Patrick Mahomes going into concussion protocol, and the veteran overcome his own untimely interception to eat up the remaining clock, capping it with a 13-yard run on third-and-14 and one-upping it with a quick pass to Tyreek Hill on fourth-and-1 to ice the thrilling win. If Mahomes doesn't leave, the result is likely the same but by a wider margin. And if Mayfield doesn't lead the Browns past two back-breaking outcomes to fight their way back into the game, this one doesn't end up exciting fans around the world. Adversity tests a person's character, and though there could only be one winner, both teams proved they have the fight of champions in them.
2) The game swung wildly on two key plays in the second and third quarters. With the Browns in dire need of a touchdown to get back into a game that seemed inches from getting out of hand, Mayfield let it rip down the field, completing passes of 23 and 26 yards to tight end David Njoku and Higgins, respectively, to put the Browns in a great position to score their first touchdown of the afternoon. Mayfield's strike to Higgins saw the receiver pick up 26 yards before diving toward the pylon, extending the ball toward the goal line just as Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen arrived to make head-first contact with the receiver, forcing a fumble that rolled out of bounds in the end zone for a touchback. The play was a gut punch to the Browns' relentless efforts to get back into the game and would have sank Cleveland teams of the past 20 years, but not this team. It also called into immediate debate the game's rule that hands possession over to the defense, even after it didn't recover the ball in bounds, and of officials' inability to review helmet-to-helmet contact (which was made very clear on replay) in such scenarios. Even so, the Browns rallied their way back into the game, especially after the other game-changing occurrence -- Mahomes' exit due to an unfortunate injury suffered on a third-down rush -- shifted momentum and gave the Browns a chance to earn enough stops or holds (to field goals) to mount a comeback effort.
3) If we needed a third play to decide the game, it was rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski's decision to punt the ball back to the Chiefs on fourth-and-9 while trailing, 22-17, with less than five minutes to play. Stefanski said afterward he felt the distance was too great to attempt to convert, but with only one timeout left in his pocket, his call proved fatal, especially after Henne stunned the football world with his third-down scramble. Stefanski's decision to challenge a catch that happened right in front of him -- no matter how unbelievably spectacular it was -- also ended up hurting the Browns tremendously when they desperately needed to stop the clock. Those decisions aside, Stefanski capped a fantastic first season at the helm of the Browns, a team that has for so long been the doormat of the league and the butt of nearly every football joke. In winning 11 regular-season games, ending the team's league-leading playoff drought and vanquishing the demon dressed in black and gold in Cleveland's first playoff win since the 1994 season, the Browns proved they are no longer a joke and have a bright future that their fans can hope is only just beginning with Sunday's painful defeat at the hands of the defending Super Bowl champions.
4) If anyone needed any more proof of Eric Bieniemy's qualifications for a head coaching job, they should be forced to watch this game's tape on loop for the next two days. Biemiemy worked up the perfect game plan to capitalize on Cleveland's defensive weaknesses, turning Kansas City's prolific offense into a well-oiled, first down-gaining machine Sunday. The Chiefs ran 63 offensive plays, but faced just 10 third downs in total, converting 50% of them while gaining 438 yards of offense. And when Biemiemy was robbed of his franchise quarterback, he shined brightest with the game on the line, expertly calling a quick out to Hill to gain the game's decisive first down on fourth-and-1 with Henne serving as the executor of Bieniemy's offensive will. When Mahomes exited, the Browns instantly had a legitimate chance to pull off the unlikely comeback, but when they had the opportunity right in front of them, they elected to punt it back to the Henne-led offense. Surely the veteran wouldn't be the one to end their chances, right? Wrong, thanks to the astute play-calling of Bieniemy, who shouldn't be in Kansas City beyond this postseason if at least one team with a head coaching vacancy is thinking clearly.
5) In beating the Browns, the Chiefs became just the second team to earn a third-straight conference championship game at home. The other team to do it? The 2002-2004 Philadelphia Eagles, also coached by Andy Reid. Reid got his long-awaited ring last season, and this accomplishment only adds to his long resume that should land him in Canton someday. But before we can begin envisioning Reid's enshrinement speech -- will he wear a floral shirt to the stage at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium? -- the Chiefs have business to handle. The Bills are packing their bags and drooling over the opportunity presented to them by their win over the Baltimore Ravens, and they'll have to dethrone the champions in order to reach their first Super Bowl since the 1993 season. Kansas City now waits to learn whether it will have Super Bowl LIV MVP Mahomes available to face the conference's second-seeded Bills, who will bring their own explosive offense and blitz-ready defense to Arrowhead to try to restore their squad as the conference's best.