Playoff success coming through shared approach for Browns & Ravens

By Sports Desk January 11, 2021

For all the concerns about the potential dilution of the playoff field following the addition of two extra teams, the NFL's first 'super' Wild Card weekend delivered, and it saved its most stunning result for last as the Cleveland Browns trounced the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

The Browns, playing in the postseason for the first time since the 2002 season, led 28-0 after an astonishing first quarter and went on to prevail 48-37 to claim a first playoff win since the 1994 season.

That they did so following a COVID-19 outbreak that left head coach Kevin Stefanski watching from home served to make the first playoff success following their 1999 rebirth all the more extraordinary.

Cleveland's next hurdle is a substantial one: the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

However, their victory keeps alive the possibility of a meeting with the team that was spawned from the Browns' original franchise when owner Art Modell made the controversial decision to move from Cleveland to Baltimore.

The Browns and the Ravens meet twice a year as AFC North rivals, but a game for a place in the Super Bowl would carry an entirely different level of significance for a Cleveland fanbase that still harbours contempt for Baltimore over that relocation a quarter of a century ago.

Like the Browns, the Ravens seemingly face an uphill climb against the second-seeded Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round. But, after getting revenge over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, there is clearly as much confidence in Baltimore as there is in Cleveland.

The self-belief in both camps is well-founded, with each having come through their Wild Card matchups using formulas that could make them extremely difficult opponents for the Chiefs and Bills.

Cleveland's brilliant backfield

Their defeat of the Steelers saw the Browns become the first team in the Super Bowl era to score at least 45 points, allow no sacks, commit no turnovers, have five or more takeaways, score a defensive touchdown and have fewer than five penalties in the same game, regular season or postseason.

The lack of sacks or turnovers is in part a result of Cleveland possessing one of the most dominant running games in the NFL.

Though quarterback Baker Mayfield still attempted 34 passes, the strain was taken off of his shoulders by running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who combined for 124 of the Browns' 127 rushing yards.

Hunt found the endzone twice, while Chubb also contributed significantly as a receiver out of the backfield, catching four passes for 69 yards, most of which was made up by a 40-yard touchdown reception.

According to the NFL's NextGen Stats, Hunt finished the game with 28 rush yards over expected. Chubb had only three yards over expected but 73 of his receiving yards came after the catch, markedly outperforming his expected yards after catch total of 41.

Hunt and Chubb demonstrated that they and an offensive line that has a claim for being the best in the league are the Browns' best route to keeping pace with the Chiefs in the Divisional Round.

Run defense is not an area of strength for the Chiefs, whose 122.1 rushing yards per game allowed in the regular season ranked 21st in the NFL. Having gashed a Steelers defense that ranked 10th in the same category, the Browns can afford to be very hopeful of the ground game putting up points at Arrowhead Stadium.

Lamar's speed fuels Ravens surge

The Ravens also did much of their damage against the Titans with the running game, but in a considerably different way as the dual-threat talents of Lamar Jackson came to the fore.

Jackson, the reigning MVP of the league had 136 of the Ravens' 236 rushing yards, his speed in the open field proving too much for Tennessee to handle.

Per NextGen Stats, his 48-yard touchdown run saw him reach a top speed of 20.52 miles per hour, the seventh fastest speed by a quarterback this season.

Few teams consistently succeed in containing Jackson as a runner, and there is evidence to suggest the Bills may struggle to do so.

They were 16th in the NFL in rushing yards per game allowed in the regular season. While they are superior to the Chiefs in that regard, Buffalo proved vulnerable to a speedy runner in their dramatic Wild Card win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Indianapolis had 163 rushing yards, with 75 of them coming on six carries from diminutive speedster Nyheim Hines.

Having allowed over five yards per carry to a Colts team that did not employ a mobile quarterback, the Bills defense is one Jackson should successfully exploit.

But the Ravens won't be able to rely solely on Jackson's heroics to get them to the title game. Both Baltimore and Cleveland will need their opportunistic defenses to deliver in order to prevent the top two seeds from facing off for a trip to Tampa Bay.

No pressure, no problem?

The Browns defense produced five turnovers despite failing to consistently pressure Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who did not suffer a sack.

They were instead able to pounce on costly errors from Roethlisberger, who missed high on several occasions and had a completion percentage over expected of minus 1.7, per NextGen Stats.

Though he threw four interceptions in his final three games of the regular season, Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes is unlikely to produce a similar display if he is not pressured.

Mahomes' interception percentage of 1.0 was the best in the NFL, with Josh Allen (1.7) also excelling in that area for Buffalo.

As with the Browns' defense against the Steelers, the Ravens shut down the Titans' run game, keeping 2,000-yard back Derrick Henry to 40 yards on 18 carries.

Their success in nullifying Henry put the game on the shoulders of Titans' quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who could not deliver as he threw a fourth-quarter interception to Marcus Peters.

But stopping the Bills' rushing attack is unlikely to directly lead to joy against Allen. Buffalo's offense does not go through the ground game, Allen throwing for 324 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Colts despite his running backs contributing only 42 rushing yards.

Baltimore will hope for more from their front in Buffalo, having sacked Tannehill just once, and may have to rely on Peters replicating Sunday's stellar display if a pass rush does not materialise.

NextGen Stats records Peters as being targeted six times as the nearest defender. He allowed three catches on those targets for 29 yards but doing the same against Allen will be a much more difficult ask.

The Browns and Ravens emerged triumphant in large part thanks to dynamic rushing attacks and defenses that grasped key turnover opportunities, though they were more plentiful for Cleveland.

Yet Mahomes and Allen are a clear step up from the quarterbacks they faced in the Wild Card round and the odds of prevailing again without creating pressure appear slim.

The franchise histories of the Browns and Ravens will forever be intertwined. It is fitting, therefore, that they are on the cusp of a historic playoff meeting through extremely similar approaches that can succeed again in Divisional Round. Though they will likely only do so if they are boosted by more fearsome play up front.

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