(Five points of interest in Sunday’s game)
THE YOUNG GUN
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes might be the most exciting player in the league right now. Draft analysts were divided on his NFL prospects and he started only the finale as a rookie last season, he he’s had no trouble slicing through defenses in the first half of 2018. He leads the league with 2,526 passing yards, 26 touchdown passes, 27 throws of 25-plus yards and a plus-20 touchdown-interception differential. He’s completed 65.6 percent, his 115.3 passer rating ranks fourth, his 111.0 rating on third down ranks second and he has seven straight 300-yard passing games.
Most importantly, he has the Chiefs off to a 7-1 start, with the only loss 43-40 at New England.
“He can make any throw. Can throw off his back foot,” defensive back Damarious Randall said. “He reminds me of a younger Aaron Rodgers. Accurate. Exciting to watch if you just want to watch some football. He is definitely one of the next big things coming up in this league.”
The numbers don’t tell the whole story. Mahomes wows with his arm (he can throw it 80 yards), his legs (he consistently avoids sacks) and his creativity (he completed a pass left-handed because the pass rusher was on his right side). He’s reminiscent of Brett Favre, without the interceptions.
“He’s a gunslinger,” safety Jabrill Peppers said. “He’s a bit unorthodoxed. He can roll out left and right, make any throw on the field. He’s gonna extend plays. We just gotta trust our eyes. See a little but see a lot.”
ONE TOUGH CUSTOMER
Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt is familiar to Northeast Ohio football fans. He was a must-see on Friday nights for Willoughby South, continued to stand out at Toledo and hasn’t stopped amazing teammates, opponents and fans in two years in the NFL. He’s fourth in the league with 592 yards, averaging 4.4 a carry. He has five rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns to rank second in the league for non-kickers with 60 points. He’s fifth with 854 yards from scrimmage and tied for third with 45 first downs.
He does it all with a running style part-grit, part-power, part-showman. He hurdled a Broncos defender on the way to the end zone last week.
“He does some Marshawn Lynch things when Marshawn was in Buffalo really young in his career,” interim coach and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. “His run awareness and his open-field stuff, he is a powerful young man. We are going to have to do a good job tackling him in space. We dedicated quite a bit of what we are doing in practice to those areas that we see him being elite right now. He is a very good tackle breaker.”
The Browns run defense has been exposed in the three-game losing streak, allowing 246 yards to the Chargers and 168 to the Steelers last week. The defenders know they must be on top of their game and rally to the ball to have any chance of stopping Hunt.
“He’s like a never-say-die runner,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “He gets hit, carries guys. He doesn’t like to allow just one guy to take him down. I feel like that’s kind of a pride thing with him. I kind of like to watch him, but not on Sunday.”
FASTER THAN FAST
The speed of receiver Tyreek Hill changes the game, and the way teams defend the Chiefs.
“Back up. Back up a little bit more than you usually do,” cornerback E.J. Gaines said.
Safety Jabrill Peppers matter-of-factly called Hill the fastest player in the league. The stats support the claim, as Hill has the second- and third-fastest plays in the league this year at nearly 22 mph. He uses the speed to turn handoffs and short passes into long gains, and to get behind the secondary for game-changing catches. He leads NFL receivers with seven touchdowns and 11 catches of 25-plus yards. He’s sixth with 705 receiving yards for a 16.0 average, and has a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown.
“The big thing that we have to do is understand the space plays and minimize the opportunity for the speed in space, make him have to try to play more in tighter areas and that type of stuff,” Williams said. “There will be times when hopefully there is more than one guy coming in his direction. You have to have a smile on a few plays that he has been able to make. It is pretty cool.”
KEEP HIM SAFE
When the owner goes out of his way to say protecting Baker Mayfield over the final eight games must be a priority, you know you have a problem. It hasn’t reached crisis level yet, but Mayfield is getting hit way too often for his health and confidence. He’s been sacked 20 times in 5½ games.
Everyone’s to blame, but the line is at the top of the list. Tackles Desmond Harrison and Chris Hubbard haven’t been strong enough, allowing ends to push them back into Mayfield’s face. And the group as a whole has struggled with end-tackle stunts, allowing rushers to come free. Mayfield also needs to get better identifying the blitzer to avoid running for his life and throwing the ball out of bounds.
“It’s just a pride thing,” right guard Kevin Zeitler said. “Baker is a rookie. I think any D-coordinator is going to try to bring anything and everything to make it tough on him. They’re testing him out, so as an O-line, running backs, tight ends, whoever’s involved, we’ve got to be able to get it done so he has more time.”
Harrison was sick Friday, didn’t practice and was listed as questionable on the injury report. He or veteran Greg Robinson will have his hands full with outside linebacker Dee Ford, who’s tied for second in the league with eight sacks and tied for first with four forced fumbles.
The Browns don’t have the firepower to match Kansas City’s offense of Mahomes, Hill, Hunt, tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Sammy Watkins. So they must plan and play accordingly. That means methodical drives on offense, a defensive approach that makes the Chiefs go the long, hard way for points and special teams that at least hold their own in the battle for field position.
“Everything has to come together with those three groups,” new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens said. “The No. 1 thing I would like to bring is a win, and one more point than them. That is all. I do not care about any stat other than the win.”
The Chiefs are 31st in defense (432.4 yards a game) and allow a league-worst 5.4 yards a rush, which should play into the hands of Kitchens, who spent the first half of the season as running backs coach and will be calling plays for the first time in a regular-season game. He can lessen the load on Mayfield and keep the ball out of the hands of Mahomes by featuring Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson out of the backfield.
“He is going to do a great job. He is going to call the right plays,” Chubb said. “It is on us to execute it. Whatever he calls, we are going to make it work.”
Of course, sometimes games take on a rhythm and life of their own, and receiver Rashard Higgins is just fine if a shootout breaks out. The last time Mayfield and Mahomes met, Oklahoma beat Texas Tech 66-59.
“It might be another one,” Higgins said. “Be ready for it.”
Wins for coach Hue Jackson before he was fired Monday
Games for Jackson with the Browns, the most by a coach during the ownership of Dee and Jimmy Haslam
Punts this year by Kansas City’s Dustin Colquitt
Punts this year by Cleveland’s Britton Colquitt, Dustin’s younger brother
Three-game losing streak, coaching changes, steamrolling Chiefs … not a good matchup for the Browns. Chiefs 31, Browns 20.