Kansas City’s 22-17 victory.
The Chiefs (15-2) advance to face the Buffalo Bills in the AFC championship game. The Browns (12-6) were left to reflect on their stunning rise from an 0-16 season three years ago.
The Browns needed quarterback Baker Mayfield’s wizardry, his ability to make a big play with his arm or with his feet when the game was on the line. For most of the second half, Mayfield came through, but he was unable to produce the drive of his life on the Browns’ final possession, which stalled at the Cleveland 32.
They needed the magical runs of Nick Chubb and the elusiveness and instincts of Kareem Hunt. In the second half, Chubb and Hunt awakened.
They needed the defense’s sorcery in terms of takeaways, which came in an avalanche last weekend in Pittsburgh. One materialized at the most opportune time with eight minutes remaining, when safety Karl Joseph intercepted a Henne pass in the end zone.
The Browns needed to win the battle of mind over matter, to keep alive the feeling that their special season still had life, that the excitement that kept Browns fans from sleeping on Saturday night would feed them a little longer.
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But in facing the Chiefs’ top-ranked offense and the best quarterback in the league in Patrick Mahomes, the Browns had to cover up their weaknesses.
They needed to find a way to handle the Chiefs’ speed with a defense that remains a work-in-progress. They needed to rely on their depth and toughness.
The Browns knocked Mahomes out of the game with 7:27 left in the third quarter after linebacker Mack Wilson’s tackle on a third-and-1 run by Mahomes left the quarterback visibly dazed. Mahomes ran to the locker room for a concussion evaluation and was later ruled out, replaced by Henne.
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Even after falling behind 6-0 on the Chiefs’ opening drive, the Browns never lost their moxie or determination. Behind 16-3 and desperate for a touchdown at the end of the second quarter, Mayfield drove them to the Chiefs 26.
Then the unthinkable happened. Mayfield’s go-to receiver Rashard Higgins pulled in a pass just short of the goal line and stretched the ball out, losing control of it. Chiefs free safety Daniel Sorensen’s hit on Higgins was helmet-to-helmet, but was not seen by the officiating crew.
The play was reviewed, but the league wasn’t looking at the helmet-to-helmet contact. The ball was given to the Chiefs and ruled a touchback, and the Chiefs used the final 1:34 to tack on a field goal for a 19-3 halftime lead.
As they have been all season in battling injuries and COVID-19, the Browns were undeterred. They came out of the locker room and drove 77 yards to a touchdown to cut the gap to 19-10 with 9:29 remaining in the third quarter. After a Chiefs’ field goal, they scored again on Hunt’s 3-yard run with 11:07 remaining to cut the deficit to 22-17.
The Browns fought on even as the parade of injuries continued. Rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills was lost to an ankle injury on the first offensive play. His replacement Kendall Lamm departed with an elbow injury. Myles Garrett was in visible pain with what was later revealed as an oblique injury suffered stretching to make a tackle just seconds into the second half.
Making their first playoff appearance since 2002 and playing in the divisional round for the first time since 1994, the 7½-point underdog Browns tried again to defy the odds. They hoped to win back-to-back playoff games for the first time since 1954-55, when they captured NFL championships during one-game postseasons.
Some believed the Chiefs were vulnerable, with eight of their 14 victories in the regular season coming by six points or less, seven since Nov. 8. Some of their stars had last played on Dec. 27.
“We’ve got miles to go, but I think we’re on the right track,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski told CBS’ Sports’ Bill Cowher in a pregame interview.
Most of those miles are on defense. Upgrades are likely coming at linebacker and in the secondary, perhaps also at defensive end opposite Garrett. The Browns hope to see the 2021 return of rookie safety Grant Delpit and cornerback Greedy Williams, both lost to season-ending injuries.
The finish was surely crushing, but the future couldn’t be brighter. Stefanski and new General Manager Andrew Berry are in total lockstep. The building is in synch for the first time in decades, certainly in the expansion era. The offensive pieces are in place, the offensive line solidified, Mayfield making big strides in Year 3.
In fact, miles to go might be an exaggeration.