Over the past two seasons, the Chiefs have defeated AFC foes Houston, Tennessee, Cleveland and Buffalo in the playoffs en route to representing the conference in back-to-back Super Bowls. While Houston appears to be entering a rebuilding season, the Titans, Browns and Bills are again expected to be among the Chiefs' main competitors as it relates to representing the conference in Super Bowl LVI. Baltimore and Pittsburgh, two teams that won a combined 23 games last season, are also expected to have a say in this year's Super Bowl participant on the AFC side.
Travis Kelce, the Chiefs All-Pro tight end and a native of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, feels that his hometown team is "definitely a contender," entering 2021. Kelce went as far as to say that the Browns and Chiefs are "neck and neck" heading into their Week 1 showdown in Arrowhead Stadium.
"They're definitely a contender, without a doubt," Kelce said while attending Browns receiver Jarvis Landry's celebrity softball game, via Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. "It's definitely there. Baker [Mayfield] and the gang have upped the ante, made this team an unbelievable team and a team you have to prepare for and take serious. I think that moving forward without a doubt, I can see a lot more playoff games between us, and I'll just take it one day at a time and hope for it. I think the Browns and Chiefs are definitely neck and neck."
Following a highly-disappointing 2019 season, the 2020 Browns put together the franchise's best season in 26 years. Along with clinching the franchise's first playoff berth since 2002, Cleveland posted its first playoff win since 1994. Making the win sweeter was that it came against the Browns' historic rival, Pittsburgh, a team that had had its way with the Browns for the majority of the past 50 years.
Cleveland followed its 48-37 win in Pittsburgh by giving the Chiefs all they could handle in the divisional round. After falling behind 22-3, touchdowns by Landry and running back Kareem Hunt brought to Browns to within five points of the Chiefs with 11 minutes to play. But the Browns could not compete the comeback, as the eventual AFC champion Chiefs held on for a five-point victory.
It's safe to say that the Browns built off of last year's success with an impressive offseason. In free agency, they signed safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill, two players who helped the Rams boast the league's top-ranked pass defense last season. The Browns further strengthened their defense with the signings of veterans Jadeveon Clowney, Takk McKinley and Malik Jackson. Cleveland's defense got even better after selecting cornerback Greg Newsome II in the first round and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the second round. While it's premature to crown this unit the best in the AFC North, it's safe to say that the Browns' defense will be vastly improved from the unit that finished 21st in the league in scoring in 2020.
Lost in the shuffle of Cleveland's draft picks was former Auburn receiver Anthony Schwartz and former Cincinnati offensive tackle James Hudson. Both players will look to serve as valuable depth for a Browns offense that is filled with top-end talent. Cleveland's offense, spearheaded last year by the two-headed backfield of Hunt and Nick Chubb, will welcome back Odell Beckham Jr. after Beckham missed most of the 2020 season with an injury.
While their offseason wasn't as splashy, the Chiefs emphatically addressed arguably their biggest need -- offensive line -- this offseason with the acquisitions of Orlando Brown, Austin Blythe and Kyle Long. And while they lost Sammy Watkins in free agency, the Chiefs have replaced him with rookie Cornell Powell, who caught seven touchdowns while averaging 16.6 yards per catch during his final year at Clemson. The Chiefs' offense continues to be led by Kelce, receiver Tyreek Hill, and Patrick Mahomes, who won Super Bowl and league MVP honors during his first two seasons as the Chiefs' starting quarterback.
Defensively, Kansas City has brought back most of the key cogs in a unit that finished 10th in the league in scoring in 2020. The Chiefs' defense is looking to receive relatively quick contributions from rookie linebacker Nick Bolton, who filled the stat sheet during his final two seasons at Missouri.
While the Chiefs should still be considered the front-runner to come out of the AFC this season, Cleveland's success last season, along with their active offseason has certainly gotten the attention of Kelce and the two-time defending AFC champions. That success has also raised the level of expectation in Cleveland, which is just fine with Landry and his teammates.
"Why not?" Landry said when asked about the fans having Super Bowl aspirations. "It's something that people always say you should not talk about, but nobody trains or nobody does what they do to not be a champion. So that's the standard.
"So why not talk about it? It's real. It's sick to be humble about what everybody is actually chasing."