Opinion: Browns' collapse against Chiefs will teach them more now than a victory would have
On its surface, the Cleveland Browns’ season-opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs looked like a colossal wetting of the bed.
A still-developing yet promising squad, in a hostile environment, was one quarter away from an upset victory over the premier team in the conference. They had the chance to make a statement both about their growth and potential.
Then came that Mahomes Magic, manifested in a one-play, 14-second, 75-yard touchdown scoring drive as Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill did what they often do. Rather than absorbing the blow and dealing as they had all game, the Browns buckled and lost 33-29.
“We did not play our best when it mattered. We did not coach our best when it mattered,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “Versus a team like this, you have to play a 60-minute football game. We didn’t do that, so again disappointed anytime you can’t get a win on the road.”
The Browns definitely choked. And as quarterback Baker Mayfield said, “this one does sting, and it should. It should sting our guys because we were close, or however you want to describe it.”
But looking big-picture, losing to Kansas City on Sunday wasn’t necessarily terrible.
The bitter taste of this defeat will likely prove more beneficial than jubilation fueled by an upset. Sure, the Browns were motivated and searching for vindication after falling short to the same opponent, on the same field, in the divisional round of the playoffs just nine months ago.
And after another strong offseason, featuring quality acquisitions in free agency and the draft, the Browns entered the 2021 regular season with great expectations, both internally and outwardly. Members of Cleveland’s organization believe they’re a part of something special. Some football pundits view them as Super Bowl contenders and at the very least, deserving of recognition as one of the top teams in the AFC.
Beating the Chiefs would have validated those lofty beliefs. But then what?
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A season-opening win over Kansas City very well could have given the Browns’ players a false sense that, “ah, we’ve arrived,” when this team still has a long way to go before it's considered elite.
Sunday’s performance - collapse and all - will teach the Browns more right now than a victory would have.
The Browns proved that they belong in that front-leading pack of teams in the conference. They entered the game with an aggressive and intentional game plan on both sides of the ball and executed it impeccably for the better part of three quarters. They even opened the fourth quarter by rebounding from a late third-quarter, fumble-killing drive by producing an authoritative nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that featured balance and diversity in weapons.
Their young cornerstones have shown they’re up to the task of performing at a high level with a strong sense of urgency. Chiefs players and coaches said the Browns' physicality gave the season opener the intensity of a playoff game.
But the fourth-quarter collapse will serve as a valuable wake-up call for Stefanski, Mayfield & Co., proving that mental fortitude of another level separates the great teams, coaches and players from the good.
The true elites aren’t easily shaken by adversity. As Sunday showed, even though the Chiefs saw the Browns outplay them much of the game, they never panicked.
“There was never any doubt (trailing 22-10 at halftime) in no one’s head that we were going to lose this game,” Kansas City’s Hill said. “We just kept playing for one another and you saw things happen for us.”
The Browns got rattled when the Chiefs hit them with one good punch. Although they still had the lead, they abandoned the run game Kansas City’s defense had struggled to stop. They couldn’t even effectively do the simplest tasks, like handle a punt snap. And in a do-or-die scenario, Mayfield, who had played very well, made the one throw that he couldn’t make and got picked off.
The Chiefs exposed the Browns’ weaknesses, all mental, not physical or talent-related. Now, they just have to find ways to grow. As Mayfield said, “Luckily, there’s 16 more of these. ... We’ve got to finish the game. We started fast, but we’ve just got to finish.”
Now, as they prepare for the Houston Texans, who won their opener, the Browns must prove themselves capable of rebounding from disappointment and living up to potential. It's a familiar position that may suit them better for the time being.
One of the biggest questions about this Browns team involves their ability to succeed as front-runners. We saw them fail to live up to contender hype two years ago, when rather than building on a promising 7-8-1 campaign in 2018, they went 6-10 and got head coach Freddie Kitchens fired.
Last season, they embraced skepticism and thrived as underdogs, hitting their stride late, chasing down a wild-card playoff berth and overtaking the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the playoffs.
Another 16 games remain, but adopting that “out to prove something” mentality should fuel these Browns.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.