There will many narratives in play about Kareem Hunt returning to Kansas City to play the Chiefs in the 2021 AFC divisional playoffs on Sunday (3:05 p.m. ET, CBS). Delivering the right take on that situation off the field is a delicate, difficult task. Strictly on-field speaking, however, the Browns won’t upset the Chiefs and get to their first AFC championship game in 31 years without a big game from Hunt.
The Chiefs’ offense will have no problem moving the ball on the Browns’ weak pass defense. With Patrick Mahomes, they won’t mind going away from rushing much against the Browns’ good run defense with great matchups across the board downfield, starting with wide receiver Tyreek HIll and tight end Travis Kelce.
Knowing that, there’s only one way for the Browns to outscore the Chiefs and win: Limit Mahomes’ time to have the ball in his hands by staying on the field with long drives that end up in touchdowns. Running well with Nick Chubb and Hunt behind a strong offensive line is central to that game plan, as well as Baker Mayfield using those assets, per usual, to hit a few big pass plays off play-action and bootleg action.
But Mayfield also doesn’t have much in the way of reliable, consistent receivers beyond Jarvis Landry and tight end Austin Hooper. The Chiefs are a tough pass defense to exploit at cornerback and safety, especially balanced by the pass rush of Frank Clark and Chris Jones up front.
The Chiefs’ major defensive deficiency lies at linebacker, however. They are No. 19 against the run, but the biggest issue is covering running backs in the passing game. Hunt has supported Chubb well running, but better things usually happen when he’s rolling as a receiver.
Hunt caught 38 of 51 targets for 308 yards and five TDs during the regular season. Given he had 37 catches for 285 yards playing half a season in 2019, those numbers might seem low. But keep in mind that Hunt was needed more to be the featured power runner when Chubb missed four games with a knee injury. Chubb also got more involved in the passing game down the stretch, including 4 catches for 69 yards and a TD in the 48-37 upset of the Steelers in the wild-card round.
Combined, Chubb and Hunt can be daunting duo for the Chiefs in the passing game, helping Mayfield keep the Browns on schedule on early downs and moving the chains on third downs.
The Chiefs were among the worst in the league in giving up an average of 5.4 catches and 48.1 yards per game to running backs. They nearly lost to the Panthers in Week 9 when Christian McCaffrey and Mike Davis (15 catches, 116 yards, TD) were big factors catching the ball. Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, Brian Hill and Todd Gurley and Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson were the duos that gave the Chiefs plenty of trouble in that capacity down the stretch.
The difference against the Browns is the fact Chubb and Hunt are equally capable of turning short passes into big plays and also finishing strong in the end zone, catch or carry. The Browns finished as the No. 4 red zone offense in the NFL, converting TDs at a 72.4 percent clip. The Chiefs were the worst red zone defense in the NFL in 2020, giving up TDs on 76.6 percent of opponents’ trips inside the 20.
The blueprint is pretty clear for the Browns, like it is every week — a heavy dose of Chubb and a good mix of Hunt, keeping both backs extremely effective and efficient to have fresh legs throughout drives and entire games.
If Hunt can help Chubb dominate the Chiefs’ defense, the Browns will give themselves a good chance to pull off the shocker. Hunt’s receiving skills, as good as they were when he was a young back with the Chiefs, will be the ultimate X-factor on Sunday.