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Here’s the first thing to know about Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff game between the Browns travel to face the Chiefs: The Browns are the most likeable team in these NFL playoffs.
Unless you’re from Kansas City, you’ll likely be rooting for the Browns.
The Browns, in the postseason for the first time since 2002, remain alive because they ambushed the favored Steelers last Sunday in Pittsburgh — with coach Kevin Stefanski watching from his basement back home in Ohio, after having tested positive for COVID-19.
The Browns, also because of the virus, were missing indispensable offensive line coach Bill Callahan, as well as several key players, for what became their first playoff victory since 1994.
In Stefanski, a rookie head coach who has led Cleveland to a 12-5 record, the Browns have the latest in a recent line of young coaches finding success in the NFL as first-timers. He has pushed all the right buttons this season and has shown himself to be unflappable in the face of adversity and relatable to his players.
“In terms of leadership, I feel like as long as you are being yourself, you have a chance,” Stefanski said.
“People do not follow fake leaders,’’ Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “You can tell when you have a group of men who are doing this and everybody is counting on you, you can sniff somebody who is fake out extremely quickly. That is not the case here.”
Mayfield himself is part of the Browns’ terrific story, having resurrected his career this season after a disappointing 2019, when it looked like he’d regressed from his rookie year.
Mayfield went from 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions last season with a 78.8 passer rating to 26 TDs to just eight INTs and a 95.9 rating this season. He enters Sunday after throwing three TD passes without an INT in the wild-card win over the Steelers and is riding a five-game streak without a pick.
“He is driven, he wants to be great, he has made huge strides,’’ Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
“He was grinding this team to get a win any which way he could,’’ Stefanski said. “That is what he has done this season. He makes plays on time, off schedule and has a great feel for the game plan and great feel for the opponent. I think you are just seeing a continuation of things he has done all season.”
As well as Mayfield has played this season, he’ll still be the second-best quarterback on the field compared to his Kansas City counterpart, Patrick Mahomes, who has been the most prolific passer in the game practically since he became a starter.
“Baker always has that underdog mentality, and I am sure that is in his mind right now,’’ Browns running back Nick Chubb said. “He wants to go out and prove himself even more. He is winner.’’
So, too, is Mahomes, who was second in the NFL with 4,740 yards passing and fourth with 38 TD passes despite sitting out Week 17. He has 13 TDs with no INTs in four postseason starts at Arrowhead Stadium and has thrown at least two TD passes in four consecutive postseason games, including in Kansas City’s Super Bowl triumph last February.
A couple of things to watch with the Chiefs (14-2): As the No. 1 seed in the AFC, they had last week off and, because they rested a number of their key starters in Week 17, including Mahomes, those players will have gone three weeks without playing a game. So, rust could be a factor.
The Chiefs, too, had a relatively easy schedule this season, having faced just four teams that ended up making the playoffs — the Ravens, Bills, Buccaneers and Saints.
They did defeat all four of those teams, so …
The Browns, meanwhile, played seven games against playoff teams, going 4-3. The Browns, though, are 6-3 on the road this season.
Many of the Browns trace that tough road mentality back to Stefanski.
“Everything is a trickle effect,’’ Browns linebacker and former Giant B.J. Goodson said. “Stefanski, he never panicked at any point along our journey of this season. He stayed the course, and we are here.”
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