The 2021 NFL season may still be months away, but fans can begin eagerly circling their calendars in anticipation of some truly mouth-watering fixtures after Wednesday's schedule release.

There are some obvious standouts. The Week 4 meeting of Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots should capture the entire league's attention as Brady returns to Foxborough for the first time since saying a shock farewell to his home of 20 seasons last offseason, and then going on to win a seventh Super Bowl ring in his maiden season with the Bucs.

A potential duel between Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 hinges on Rodgers blinking in his staring contest with the Packers' brass and returning for the season.

Should he do so, it will pit the reigning MVP against the 2018 MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP in a matchup of two quarterbacks who have each recently finished in the top five in well-thrown ball percentage. Rodgers was third in the NFL with 82.4 per cent last season while Mahomes was fourth with 81.1 per cent in 2019 as he led the Chiefs to the Lombardi Trophy.

But the games with the best narratives on the surface do not always produce the best matchups. Here, using Stats Perform data, we look at five other games on the schedule that are in the mix to be among the most exciting games of the 2021 campaign.

 

Packers @ 49ers - Week 3

The Packers trounced a 49ers team decimated by injuries last season, though that was probably hollow revenge for Green Bay's NFC Championship Game humbling at the hands of San Francisco in the 2019 season.

Typically, when Rodgers has visited the team he idolised in his youth, things have gone poorly for the Packers. He has won two of his four regular-season meetings with the Niners in the Bay Area but has lost to San Francisco on each of the three occasions he has faced them in the playoffs, with two of those defeats on the road.

Still, if Rodgers acquiesces in his stand-off with Packers management and plays for Green Bay in 2021, it promises to be a fascinating duel of NFC contenders, with the Niners potentially starting a rookie quarterback in dual-threat Trey Lance.

Should Rodgers remain with the Packers, the key matchup in this one could well be the reigning MVP against a Niners defensive line that should get back edge rusher Nick Bosa after he missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL.

Rodgers' well-thrown percentage under pressure was 71.0 per cent in 2020, the ninth-best in the NFL, and he will likely have to maintain that accuracy under duress if Bosa is back to his best. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent in his first season in the league, trailing only Adrian Clayborn and elder brother Joey, and sacked Rodgers in the regular season and the NFC title game.

Buccaneers @ Rams - Week 3

Yes, Brady v Belichick is the game everybody in Tampa will be most excited for, and the season opener between the Super Bowl champions and the Dallas Cowboys will be a primetime ratings monster, but perhaps the best duel involving the only player with seven Super Bowl rings will take place when Tampa head west.

The Rams edged the Buccaneers 27-24 in Tampa last season and should provide a stern test again at SoFi Stadium with Matthew Stafford set to be under center for Los Angeles.

But Stafford is not the person Brady will be concerned with when it comes to the Rams. Instead, it will be three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Brady was phenomenal when it came to avoiding interceptable passes last season.

He threw a pickable pass on just 13 of 590 pass attempts in 2020, a percentage of 2.20 that only Alex Smith (2.12) could better. When under pressure, it increased to 3.45 per cent, but that was still the fourth-lowest pickable pass rate in the NFL under duress.

But no defender in the league strikes fear into the heart of quarterbacks quite like Donald, who led all defensive tackles in 2020 with a pressure rate of 27.7 per cent and an adjusted sack rate of 5.5 per cent.

Donald can destroy the best-laid plans of any offense, and surviving the challenge he and the Rams will pose will be one of the biggest tests for Brady and the Bucs in their bid to repeat as champions

Bills @ Chiefs - Week 5

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game in which the Bills did not produce an effort reflective of their outstanding 2020, and Buffalo look like the team best placed to challenge Kansas City again in the AFC in 2021.

The headline act of this clash is the battle of the quarterbacks, with Mahomes and Josh Allen leading the revolution of athletic, cannon-armed quarterbacks who have taken the league by storm.

But an underrated aspect of this game will be Stefon Diggs' performance against a Chiefs secondary that does not get the credit it deserves.

Diggs was held to six catches for 77 yards in the playoff matchup but recently revealed he played through the postseason with an oblique tear.

When healthy, Diggs has the ability to do significantly greater damage. He led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards in his first season in Buffalo and trailed only Davante Adams (3.9) in burn yards per route as he averaged 3.6.

However, the Chiefs' projected starting cornerbacks have the means to slow him down. L'Jarius Sneed was fifth among all corners in preventing big plays, allowing a play of 20 yards or more on just 14.5 per cent of his targets. 

Meanwhile, Charvarius Ward was fourth among corners in burns allowed, giving up a burn on 32.7 per cent of his targets.

Bears @ Seahawks - Week 16

The Bears have rarely been high on the list of teams to look out for when it comes to intrigue in recent years, but that all changed when they traded up to draft Justin Fields 11th overall.

Once Chicago ends the charade of committing to Andy Dalton as starting quarterback and goes with the high-upside rookie, the Bears have the potential to be an extremely interesting watch.

That will certainly be the case if Fields is under center when they travel to Seattle's Lumen Field, with the Bears set to face the quarterback they reportedly pursued before picking Fields, Seahawks star Russell Wilson.

A quarterback battle between Fields and Wilson has the potential to be an absorbing encounter featuring two signal-callers who each excel with their accuracy throwing the deep ball.

Of quarterbacks with at least 25 throws of 25 or more air yards, only three players (Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr) had a higher well-thrown percentage than Wilson's 63.0 per cent on those attempts last season.

Fields was similarly proficient attacking downfield in his final year for Ohio State, posting a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 per cent on throws of 15 or more air yards that was superior to that of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones.

If his success in that regard quickly translates to the NFL, the Bears' trip to the Pacific Northwest could turn into a scintillating showcase of the deep passing game. For the first time in a while, the Bears have the potential to be must-see TV.

Ravens @ Browns - Week 14

The balance of power in the AFC North is shifting towards the Ravens and Browns and their Monday Night game in Cleveland last year was among the most entertaining of the 2020 campaign.

In the end, the Browns' inability to stop Lamar Jackson, even after his apparent 'comfort break', from making the big plays in Baltimore's thrilling comeback was the decisive factor in the Ravens' 47-42 triumph.

Cleveland took steps to stop such a scenario from playing out again, using their first-round pick on a cornerback in Greg Newsome II who allowed a big play on just 4.2 per cent of his 36 targets in an abbreviated final season at Northwestern.

His addition, and that of versatile second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who allowed a big-play percentage of 11.0 when covering from the slot and had an overall pressure rate of 25.0 per cent, should help the Browns do a better job of slowing down opponents.

But whether those arrivals are enough to make the difference against Jackson and the Ravens is another matter.

An underrated downfield thrower whose well-thrown percentage of 60.0 on throws of 25 or more air yards was seventh in the NFL last year, Jackson has another dynamic weapon to target in the form of first-round receiver Rashod Bateman.

Sixth among Power 5 wideouts with at least 50 targets in burn yards per target (16.15) in his stellar 2019 season, Bateman can be the number one receiver Jackson has long since lacked.

Bateman excelled at creating separation two years ago while having an average depth of target of 16.2. With him and speedster Marquise Brown in the mix, Jackson does not lack big-play weapons, and Cleveland's ability to keep them under wraps could be critical in deciding an ultra-competitive division in 2021.

With free agency in the rear-view mirror and the 2021 draft all wrapped up, NFL teams can now draw breath and start to reflect on what has unfolded during the offseason.

Ideally, all teams will hope they sit in a better position to challenge than they did a few months back, but the reality is some are just starting from further back than others.

When it comes to Super Bowl challengers, undoubtedly the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs remain strong favourites to get back to the big game. The Bucs have got the band back together after hoisting aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy on home turf, while the Chiefs have responded to a harrowing loss by rebuilding the offensive line in front of Patrick Mahomes.

But what about the chasing pack? Stats Perform picks out some of the leading contenders for glory while reflecting on what has happened since they last played.

Buffalo Bills

An appearance in the AFC Championship Game inspired by the improved play of quarterback Josh Allen left Buffalo rightly believing they needed minor tweaks, rather than dramatic alterations, to challenge once again in 2021. They kept the offensive line together, then added depth at a key area in the draft when selecting Spencer Brown in round three.

However, the Bills – who ranked 15th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.5) last term but were a lowly 26th versus the run (4.62) – used first and second-round selections to help their defense, with Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr firming up a pass rush that tied 15th for sacks. Add in Emmanuel Sanders to the receiving group and Buffalo appears to be in rude health as they aim to go one better than last season.

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams are swinging for the fences as they bid to get back to the Super Bowl. Jared Goff was the starter when they lost to the New England Patriots in February 2019, but his time with the franchise is over. The blockbuster deal to get Matthew Stafford from Detroit has ramped up the pressure to get results on the field – and not just in the regular season either.

Leonard Floyd remained thanks to a bumper contract, but John Johnson and Troy Hill are gone from the secondary. They will continue to lean heavily on Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to lead a defense that allowed the fewest passing yards per play (5.08) and the third-least rushing yards per play (3.76). While trades have seen the Rams become accustomed to watching on as teams are on the clock in round one, it was notable they added three wide receivers with their picks as they aim for a fifth successive winning season under head coach Sean McVay.

San Francisco 49ers

Yes, a team who finished the 2020 regular season with a 6-10 record should be considered as genuine contenders. The 49ers went so close to Super Bowl glory 15 months ago, while a roster ravaged by injuries last season will hope for better fortune when it comes to keeping key personnel healthy. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has jetted off to New York, but Nick Bosa should be back.

In truth, it will be the offense that defines San Francisco's chances. Jimmy Garoppolo failed to inspire in his limited appearances, throwing seven touchdowns to five interceptions, so getting a quarterback in the draft – even if trading up to number three came at a high cost – made sense. Trey Lance was their choice, a high-upside selection who showed plenty of promise in 19 games for North Dakota State. The run game remains pivotal, though, which explains why they splashed out to make sure Trent Williams and Kyle Juszczyk stuck around.

Cleveland Browns

Having made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, the Browns knocked out divisional rivals Pittsburgh and then came close to upsetting Kansas City on the road. The defense was bolstered up front with the signings of Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson. However, having given up 31 passing touchdowns, the secondary has rightly been the focus. After snapping up former Rams duo Johnson and Hill, Cleveland selected cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the first two rounds of the draft.

Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski built the offense around the rushing tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt – the team averaged 4.8 yards per rush – easing the pressure on Baker Mayfield to move the sticks. Still, he ranked sixth in passer rating (118.4) on throws of 21 air yards or more among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts, showing teams cannot fill the box and focus solely on stopping the run. If they can get out of a highly competitive AFC North again, the Browns will believe they can build on a Divisional Round appearance.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens' hopes will once again rest with Lamar Jackson, their dual-threat quarterback who is on course for a significant pay rise when an agreement is reached over a long-term extension. His ability to run helped Baltimore finish first in rushing yards per play with 5.53, while the passing game has a little extra help now after receiver Rashod Bateman was taken with the 27th pick. Still, there was no flashy free-agency signing at the position, despite links with JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton. Kevin Zeitler did pen a deal, securing an experienced guard to bolster the offensive line.

Defensively, Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue have moved on to the Patriots and Raiders respectively, though the Ravens have a reputation for building a pass rush no matter who is on the roster. Tyus Bowser can expect an increased role, plus outside linebacker Odafe Oweh was chosen with the late first-round pick acquired in the trade that sent offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr to the Chiefs.

Honourable mentions

The Green Bay Packers would have made the list were it not for the uncertainty surrounding the future of reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers. For all their quarterback's undoubted qualities on the field, they have not made a Super Bowl in 11 years. And what is going on in Seattle too? Rumours relating to Russell Wilson's future have dominated the offseason for the Seahawks.

The Indianapolis Colts will hope they can get the best out of signal-caller Carson Wentz and the Pittsburgh Steelers seem set for one last ride with Ben Roethlisberger. As for a trendy pick who missed out on the playoffs last season, look no further than the Los Angeles Chargers, complete with a revamped offensive line to help keep QB Justin Herbert safe.

The Cleveland Browns have locked in Baker Mayfield for 2022 after exercising their fifth-year option on the quarterback's contract.

Cleveland announced their move on Friday after Mayfield led the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years last season – a shock win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mayfield – the number one pick in the 2018 NFL Draft – had a breakout 2020 campaign in which he threw for 3,563 yards, 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, while his passer rating of 95.9 was the third-best mark in franchise history.

Having thrown 21 interceptions in 2019, Mayfield was picked off only eight times in 2020, his touchdown to interception ratio of 3.25 good enough for ninth in the NFL, per Stats Perform.

Yet the upside of Cleveland's passing game still appeared limited. Mayfield was a disappointing tied for 17th with 43 completions of 20 yards or more.

Mayfield ranked sixth in the NFL in passer rating (118.4) on throws of 21 air yards or more among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts.

Since taking over as the full-time starter in Week 4 of the 2018 season, Mayfield has started 45 consecutive regular-season games and made both starts in the team's 2020 playoff games.

In his career so far, Mayfield has thrown for 11,115 yards, 75 touchdowns and 43 interceptions.

The Browns, meanwhile, also exercised their fifth-year option on 2018 number four pick Denzel Ward.

 

Jadeveon Clowney is looking forward to teaming up with fellow pass rusher Myles Garrett after signing for the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns confirmed the arrival of free agent Clowney on Wednesday, reportedly on a one-year, $10million contract.

Clowney, the first overall pick in 2014, was a three-time Pro Bowler with the Houston Texans before spending the 2019 season with the Seattle Seahawks and joining the Tennessee Titans for 2020.

Cleveland has become the 28-year-old's latest stop and he is revelling the opportunity to play opposite Garrett.

Clowney has 32.0 career sacks, a tally bettered by Garrett, who has quickly racked up 42.5 along with 83 quarterback hits in four seasons.

"I've been getting double-teamed an awful lot in this league, in my career," the new signing said.

"I'm looking forward to playing with somebody dominant on the other side in Myles Garrett who can draw a double-team. Maybe I can go one-on-one more."

Clowney will be hoping to rediscover the form of his final two seasons in Houston, which saw 18.5 sacks and 42 QB hits across 31 games.

He has had just 19 starts since leaving the Texans and missed the second half of last season in Tennessee with a knee injury.

Ideally, they would have liked more of one of the NFL's most tortured fanbases in the stadium to see it, but the Cleveland Browns will forever reflect on 2020 as the year the drought finally ended.

Kevin Stefanski's first season as head coach resulted in a first playoff berth since the 2002 season, with long-awaited revenge for a Wild Card defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers 18 years earlier coming as the Browns trounced Pittsburgh in their own back yard to clinch their first postseason win since Bill Belichick was head coach.

Little went right for the Browns following their trip to the Divisional Round in the 1994 season, Belichick enduring a losing final year in charge before the team spent three years out of the league following a controversial relocation to Baltimore.

But every sign points to the Browns writing more positive chapters in the history books in the coming years after Stefanski helped a deep roster realise its potential.

What do the Browns need to do to take the next step towards Super Bowl contention? We used Stats Perform data to reflect on a memorable 2020 campaign, analyse their offseason moves so far and look at what should still be on their to-do list heading towards the draft.

Offense

Any doubts around Stefanski's ability to get consistent production out of the Browns' offense were put to bed in his first season at the helm.

The Browns narrowly missed out on finishing top 10 in yards per play in 2020, their average of 5.79 putting them 11th.

Unsurprisingly for a coach experienced in running the Shanahan-Kubiak type offense that is en vogue in the NFL, the Browns' success was built around an extremely efficient run game.

Cleveland's yards per rush average of 4.8 was fifth in the league, with the Browns' offensive line doing an excellent job in opening holes for two elite running back talents in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Chubb (34) and Hunt (29), each finished in the top 10 in rushes of 10 or more yards, with each excelling at picking up yards after first contact by a defender.

Indeed, Chubb's average of 2.5 yards after contact per attempt was tied-second among running backs with at least 50 carries, just behind J.K. Dobbins of the Baltimore Ravens (2.6).

Hunt (2.2) was 10th in the same category, and they each ranked in the top three in broken tackles. Chubb was tied for first with Dalvin Cook on 14, just ahead of Hunt on 13.

The passing game ranked in the top half of the league in yards per play (11th with 6.72), with starting quarterback Baker Mayfield making obvious progress in protecting the football.

Having thrown 21 interceptions in 2019, Mayfield was picked off only eight times in 2020, his touchdown to interception ratio of 3.25 good enough for ninth in the NFL.

Yet the upside of Cleveland's passing game still appeared limited. Mayfield was a disappointing tied for 17th with 43 completions of 20 yards or more.

However, with the Browns' signal-caller ranking sixth in the NFL in passer rating (118.4) on throws of 21 air yards or more among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts, there is reason to believe that Cleveland's offense could offer a significantly greater downfield threat if Mayfield and Stefankski are willing to be more aggressive in 2021.

That change in approach may only come if the offense gets better support from the defense.

Defense

A defense blessed with one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL should be better at stopping opposing aerial attacks.

Despite the best efforts of Myles Garrett, named a first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career, quarterbacks had it too easy against the Browns in 2021.

Garrett racked up 12 sacks, sixth-most in the NFL, 18 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles. He was fifth in combined knockdowns and hurries with a total of 70.

But the Browns failed to properly capitalise on the pressure he created across the course of the season.

They allowed 31 passing touchdowns, the eighth-most in the league, with 11 of those scores coming on throws of at least 20 yards. Only five teams gave up more passing touchdowns of that distance.

Injuries in the secondary did not help the Browns' cause - rookie safety Grant Delpit did not play a snap in his rookie year and a nerve injury in his shoulder robbed Greedy Williams of his 2020 campaign.

That meant a stellar season from former fourth overall pick Denzel Ward was somewhat undermined by the lack of talent around him in the secondary, Ward tied second in the NFL with 18 pass breakups.

Where the Browns did excel was in preventing big plays from opposing rushing attacks.

They were tied seventh for the fewest opponent running plays of 10 or more yards, giving up 43, with the average distance of those carries (14.8), the fourth-lowest in the league.

Even with their efforts in keeping running backs in check, the Browns were a lowly 26th in opponent touchdown efficiency, allowing teams to find the endzone on 48 of 165 defensive drives.

The Browns will not legitimately threaten the AFC's elite without an improvement in pass defense, and their offseason to this point suggests they recognise that.

Offseason

Cleveland made one of the best signings of free agency when they inked safety John Johnson to a three-year, $33.75milion deal.

The price may have been slightly rich in a safety market that was predictably slow, but Johnson certainly justified it over the course of his four years with the Rams.

Johnson had 32 pass breakups between 2017 and 2020, tied for the eighth-most among safeties, and that total would almost certainly have been higher had he not missed 10 games through injury in 2019.

Joining Johnson in Cleveland is former Rams team-mate Troy Hill, the cornerback arriving on a two-year deal, while the Browns also took a flier on edge rusher Takkarist McKinley on a one-year deal.

The secondary and the pass rush could still use reinforcement, especially with interior defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi leaving for the Cincinnati Bengals, but it is the middle of the defense that stands out as the most pressing area of concern for the Browns.

Signing Anthony Walker Jr. to a one-year deal and retaining Malcolm Smith and Elijah Lee should not prohibit the Browns from targeting a linebacker in the draft, with a lack of athleticism at that position coming to the fore as Chiefs backup Chad Henne's fourth-quarter scramble effectively sealed their playoff elimination.

Athletic linebackers who can excel in coverage and play sideline to sideline against the run are a must in the modern NFL. The Browns have a deficiency there but, beyond that position, they have few obvious holes and their performance in Kansas City was reflective of a team ready to become a consistent contender in the AFC.

Years of struggle and stockpiling draft picks are finally beginning to bear fruit and, if the Browns can add the final piece of the puzzle on defense and give Mayfield more licence to go downfield in 2021, there is no reason they cannot threaten to go deeper into the playoffs next season.

Marty Schottenheimer, the coach with the eighth highest number of wins in NFL history, has died at died at the age of 77.

He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014, and died on Monday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, his family said in a statement.

Known for his passionate pre-game speeches and a smash-mouth brand of football that spawned the term 'Martyball', Schottenheimer went 200-126-1 in regular-season games from 1984 to 2006 while coaching the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, and the then Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers.

Current Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said: "My heart goes out to the Schottenheimer family. Marty was a friend and someone I admired greatly.

"He was an outstanding mentor to me as a young football coach, and one of the most passionate coaches I've ever been around. He did things the right way. He was great for the league and really revived this franchise during his time here. I'm honoured I had a chance to get to know him and his family. My thoughts and prayers are with them during this difficult time."

Schottenheimer's coaching career began in Cleveland in 1984, and two seasons later he led the franchise to the first of back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game. Both times, however, they lost to the Denver Broncos, and both times in heartbreaking fashion.

Postseason shortcomings will forever be associated with Schottenheimer, who was just 5-13 in the playoffs.

After mutually agreeing to leave the Browns following the 1988 season, he coached the Chiefs from 1989-98 and led Kansas City to six consecutive playoff berths from 1990-95, but his teams only won postseason games in two of those seasons.

He then spent one season with the team now known as the Washington Football Team, going 8-8 in 2001, before coaching the Chargers from 2002-06, where he once again enjoyed some regular-season success without a single playoff win to show for it.

In 2006, his Chargers were 14-2 and had the AFC’s top seed but lost to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots 24-21 in the divisional round. A month after that defeat he was fired.

In his 21 seasons as coach, his teams won 10 or more games 11 times – including five seasons with 12 or more victories – but he never made it to the Super Bowl.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been crowned the NFL's MVP for a third time.

Rodgers was honoured during Saturday's awards – on the eve of Super Bowl LV between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – as he added to his 2011 and 2014 MVPs.

The 37-year-old is now level with Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, Packers great Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown with three Most Valuable Player honours – only Peyton Manning (five) has more in NFL history.

The Packers fell short in the NFC Conference Game, beaten by Super Bowl finalists the Buccaneers, but Rodgers still enjoyed a memorable campaign.

Packers star Rodgers amassed 48 touchdowns, five interceptions and a completion rate of 70.7 per cent this season.

His quarterback rating of 121.5 puts him second on the all-time list among qualifiers, behind only his 2011 campaign (122.5).

In total, Rodgers completed 372 of 526 attempts for 4,299 yards as the Packers topped the NFC North with a 13-3 record to clinch home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Rodgers – a Super Bowl champion during the 2010 season – featured in his first NFC title decider at Lambeau Field, but the Packers fell to Brady's Buccaneers 31-26.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald won the Defensive Player of the Year for a third time.

Pittsburgh Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt had been tipped to win the award, but Donald maintained his dominance, having also reigned supreme in 2017 and 2018.

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski claimed the Coach of the Year award after leading the franchise to their first postseason victory in 25 years.

Not since the 1994 season had the Browns won a playoff matchup, until upstaging the Steelers before losing to the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round.

 

List of NFL Honors

Rookie of the Year: Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert
Defensive Player of the Year: Los Angeles Rams DL Aaron Donald
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert
Offensive Player of the Year: Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Washington DE Chase Young
Comeback Player of the Year: Washington QB Alex Smith
Coach of the Year: Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski
Most Valuable Player: Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers

Andy Reid said Patrick Mahomes was "feeling good" after the Kansas City Chiefs star suffered a concussion in Sunday's 22-17 win over the Cleveland Browns.

Mahomes was replaced by Chad Henne in the third quarter of the AFC Divisional Round game at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday after a big hit from Browns linebacker Mack Wilson.

Amid concerns over the 2018 NFL MVP – who joined Hall of Famer Steve Young (1993-94) as the only players in NFL history to have a passing touchdown and rushing TD in three successive playoff games – Chiefs head coach Reid was upbeat about Mahomes' health.

"He's actually doing very well. I just talked to him and he's doing good," Reid told a news conference.

"We'll see how he is tomorrow, but right now he's feeling good."

Without Mahomes, Super Bowl champions the Chiefs still managed to book a meeting with the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game.

Henne produced a 13-yard run and made a short pass to Tyreek Hill on fourth-and-one to seal the Chiefs' win.

"When you're around him [Henne], you just know. I'm glad he had an opportunity to play a week or two ago, whenever our last game was, and get in," Reid said.

"I think that helped him when he jumped in this time of just being comfortable with the speed of everything. Everybody has full confidence in him."

Reid added: "We go through all of those Saturday night with the quarterbacks and those situations, fourth-and-one to win the game, what do you want? That play happened to be there.

"My coaches were on board between Mike [Kafka] and Eric [Bieniemy] and Joe [Bleymaier] upstairs, they all did a great job, with the spot, with the calls, with everything. They were spot on so it was a great job."

The Chiefs will host the AFC Championship Game for the third consecutive season. According to NFL Research, Kansas City joined the 2002-2004 Philadelphia Eagles – also coached by Reid – as the only teams to stage three straight conference championships.

Two separate Patrick Mahomes issues gave the Kansas City Chiefs serious cause for concern even as they beat the Cleveland Browns 22-17 to return to the AFC Championship Game.

The defending Super Bowl champions are now one win away from returning to the NFL's showpiece event but will spend the coming days worrying over superstar quarterback Mahomes' status after he exited this game with concussion, having already gone down with a toe injury.

Sunday's success proved far more testing than might have been expected as the Chiefs, led by Mahomes, got off to a typically dominant start, making the most of their full array of offensive weapons in a 10-play, 75-yard opening drive that ended with the QB running in from a yard.

The Browns were restricted to a field goal in response and Mahomes then found Travis Kelce - a boyhood Cleveland fan - for a second Kansas City score.

But Mahomes soon required treatment on his toe and the Chiefs' momentum waned, fortunate to stretch their lead through two field goals heading into halftime as a touchback cost the Browns, with Daniel Sorensen's hit - seemingly led with the helmet - forcing a fumble from Rashard Higgins through the end zone.

Even as Tyrann Mathieu picked off a Baker Mayfield pass at the start of the second half, Cleveland came again and the QB connected with Jarvis Landry for a first TD.

Mahomes was soon heading for the locker room after taking a big hit from Mack Wilson and struggling to regain his balance, with confirmation following that he would not return shortly before Kareem Hunt's three-yard run completed an 18-play, 75-yard TD drive to reduce the deficit to five points.

Veteran backup Chad Henne was called in for Kansas City and promptly followed up a pair of promising passes with an end-zone interception, giving the ball back to Mayfield in the fourth quarter.

However, an epic back-and-forth saw the Browns forced to punt with under four minutes remaining, and Henne came up with two huge plays inside the two-minute warning as head coach Andy Reid gambled on a pass from fourth and inches to clinch victory and a Championship Game against the Buffalo Bills with a vital first down.

Patrick Mahomes was ruled out of the rest of the Kansas City Chiefs' clash against the Cleveland Browns following a concussion evaluation.

Mahomes appeared dazed after taking a big hit from Browns linebacker Mack Wilson in the third quarter.

The star quarterback headed to the locker room and was replaced by Chad Henne in the AFC Divisional Round clash.

Mahomes was evaluated for a concussion before being officially ruled out.

He completed 21 of 30 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown.

The Browns reduced the Chiefs' lead to 22-17 early in the fourth quarter.

The Wild Card Round was, well, wild.

The Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns ended long postseason droughts, while the Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore Ravens impressed as they produced upset results on the road.

Meanwhile, Tom Brady made sure the Tampa Bay Buccaneers progressed, securing a showdown with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints that will be an all-NFC South battle between starting quarterbacks with a combined age is 85.

As for the Kansas City Chiefs, the reigning Super Bowl champions - along with NFC top seeds the Green Bay Packers - prepare to return to action after a well-earned bye week.

A four-game schedule has all the potential for another bumper weekend of NFL action, with fans watching on to found out who will be the final four left standing in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers - Saturday, 4.35pm (all times Eastern)

- The Rams are the only current NFC team with an all-time winning record against the Packers (46-45-2), but they have lost five of the previous six and 11 of the past 15 meetings. Green Bay, meanwhile, earned the No.1 seed in the conference for just the third time in their history.

- Aaron Rodgers posted the second-highest passer rating in NFL history this season (121.5), trailing only his own 122.5 in 2011, when he was voted the league's MVP. Rodgers had six games with four or more touchdown passes and zero interceptions, tying the most in a season all-time (Peyton Manning in 2013). In Rodgers' playoff career, the Packers are 8-1 when he does not throw an interception - but 2-7 when he does.

Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills - Saturday, 8.15pm

- Baltimore (191.9) and Tennessee (168.1) finished first and second in the NFL in rushing yards per game in the regular season, but the Ravens out-rushed the Titans 236-51 last week to progress. Lamar Jackson ran for 136 of them, the third most ever by a quarterback in a playoff game.

- Josh Allen completed 26 of 35 passes in the Wild Card win over the Indianapolis Colts (74.0 per cent), the highest completion percentage by a Bills starting QB in a playoff game. Allen also became the fifth player in NFL history with a passing TD, a rushing TD and a receiving TD in the playoffs, joining Freeman McNeil, Kordell Stewart, Julian Edelman and Nick Foles.

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs - Sunday, 3.05pm

- This is the first postseason game between the teams. The Chiefs have won the past three meetings, most recently on November 4, 2018 (37-21). In fact, Cleveland have not beaten Kansas City since December 2012, while they have triumphed at Arrowhead only once in the past 32 seasons (December 2009).

- Against the Steelers, Baker Mayfield became the seventh player in league history to throw at least three TD passes without an interception in his postseason debut. Only one other player has done this in the previous 15 years (Alex Smith in 2011). He goes up against Patrick Mahomes, who has accounted for 16 total touchdowns – 13 TD passes and three rushing scores – in five postseason outings.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints - Sunday, 6.40pm

- This will be the 59th all-time meeting of these franchises, albeit the first in the postseason. The Saints have won five straight in the rivalry, outscoring the Bucs by a combined 165-81 during that streak.

- Brady's two touchdown passes against the Washington Football Team moved his career postseason total to 75, while the victory was his 31st in 42 career playoff starts. In the entire NFL, only five teams have as many as 31 postseason wins in their history. Brady (341) and Saints QB Brees (303) rank first and third respectively in career starts among quarterbacks, regular season and playoffs combined.

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.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield insisted "nobody here is satisfied yet" after they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers to record a first playoff win since 1994.

The Browns jumped to a 28-0 first-quarter lead on Sunday at Heinz Field, where they had been enduring a 17-game losing streak, the third-longest on the road at a single opponent in NFL history.

That first-quarter points tally, a joint record in the playoffs, was followed by some resolute second-half defense as they secured a 48-37 victory.

The triumph was made more remarkable by the fact a coronavirus outbreak meant practice sessions on Wednesday and Thursday were cancelled and coach Kevin Stefanski was forced to watch the action from home.

Mayfield, who completed 21 of 34 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns, is already looking ahead to next Sunday's showdown with top seeds the Kansas City Chiefs.

"We're a team, we stick together, and to have those guys there in our celebration was great," he said. "But the best thing about it was the mentality of everybody saying, we didn't want to just win this game.

"It's a stepping stone to where we want to go. Nobody here is satisfied yet."

Before the game, Mayfield posted a video to Instagram with the caption 'Browns is the Browns', referencing comments made by Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had proclaimed himself happy to be facing "the same Browns teams I play every year".

"We believe in the people in this room no matter what is going on," said Mayfield afterwards. "We knew that everybody was counting us out. We knew what mentality we were going to have, and it's just to cut it loose, because no one believed in us besides us."

The result drew astonished reactions from the sporting world on Twitter, including from Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and five-time NBA champion Magic Johnson.

Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who stood in as acting head coach in Stefanski's absence, said: "I want to congratulate our fans – I grew up one of them. I know what this means."

Ben Roethlisberger was not ready to discuss his future after the Pittsburgh Steelers lost 48-37 to the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round on Sunday.

The Steelers were the last team to be unbeaten in the regular season before finishing 12-4 but committed three turnovers in the first quarter at Heinz Field, Karl Joseph returning Maurkice Pouncey's fumble for a touchdown on the opening drive and Roethlisberger throwing two interceptions.

It was the first time Pittsburgh committed three turnovers in the first quarter under Roethlisberger across his 17 seasons with the team, with the Browns taking full advantage to surge into a 28-0 lead.

The 38-year-old finished the game 47-of-68 passing for 501 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions, but the damage had already been down.

Roethlisberger has one year remaining on his contract worth $41.2million and is yet to make a decision on whether he will return next season.

"It's going to start between me and God, a lot of praying. A lot of talking with my family, discussions, decisions," said Roethlisberger.

"I still have a year left on my contract. I hope the Steelers want me back, if that's the way we go. There will be a lot of discussions. But now is not the time for that.

"This loss is fresh. It's just sitting on our hearts and our minds right now. It will for a while."

On his performance, he added: "It wasn't good enough. When you lose a game like this, you can look back and evaluate all you want on the season, how you did during this game, that game, runs, stretches. I mean, at some point we'll look back on the whole thing.

"But when it doesn't end the way you want it to, you're always going to feel some kind of way, like you came up short or it's your fault."

The Steelers have not won a playoff game since 2016, with their past three appearances in the postseason ending in defeat. For the Browns, it was a first playoff victory since 1994.

Asked if he was accountable for Pittsburgh's recent failures, head coach Mike Tomlin replied: "It is what it is. Our record is our record. Our performances are our performances. Don't run away from that.

"We didn't perform well enough. Not coaching, not playing. You can chalk it up to the turnover game. But we weren't good enough in a lot of other areas, communication, in terms of detail. Just not a good night for us.

"In the single elimination tournaments, when you don't have a good night, you go home."

The Cleveland Browns claimed their first playoff win since 1994 with a 48-37 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

An incredible 28-point first quarter set up the Browns' victory at Heinz Field in their first playoff game since 2002.

Baker Mayfield completed 21 of 34 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns, while Kareem Hunt rushed for two TDs.

Meanwhile, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted four times, throwing four TDs after completing 47 of 68 for 501 yards. The 47 completions were the most in a game in NFL history.

It was a series of early errors that cost the Steelers, the third seeds giving up 28 points in the opening quarter of the Wild Card round.

A bad snap led to Karl Joseph's touchdown after just 14 seconds and the Browns – without Kevin Stefanski after the head coach tested positive for coronavirus amid an outbreak at the organisation – piled on the points to begin the contest.

Roethlisberger, making his 22nd postseason start to break a tie with John Elway for the fifth most all-time, was intercepted by MJ Stewart Jr. and the Browns capitalised immediately, Mayfield finding Jarvis Landry with a 40-yard TD pass.

Hunt would rush for two scores to finish the quarter, either side of another Roethlisberger interception, as the Browns opened up a 28-0 lead.

The Steelers reduced the deficit in the second quarter before Roethlisberger connected with Eric Ebron and JuJu Smith-Schuster in the third, closing the gap to 35-23.

But Mayfield and Nick Chubb connected for a 40-yard TD early in the fourth quarter, all but ending the contest despite the Steelers' late push.

Turning point – Browns gifted dream start

Cleveland could not have dreamt of a better start to their first playoff game since 2002.

A bad snap went over Roethlisberger's head just seconds into the game and the Browns capitalised through Joseph.

It set the scene for the Browns and the rattled Steelers conceded a defining 28 points in the opening quarter. It was the most scored by any team in the first quarter of a playoff game since the 1970 NFL merger, as per NFL Research.

Browns get rolling

The Browns' 48 points marked the second time in franchise history they have scored 40-plus points in an NFL playoff game, according to NFL Research.

Cleveland's offense was allowed to get rolling early and they made the most of it.

What's next?

The Browns face the difficult task of a trip to Arrowhead Stadium to face defending champions the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round on January 17.

Pittsburgh fell away after making an 11-0 start to the season and much of the talk about the Steelers is set to focus on the future of 38-year-old QB Roethlisberger.

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