KANSAS CITY — The Browns threw the first few punches Sunday but ultimately couldn't keep the defending AFC Champions down long enough.
Cleveland, a little less than nine months removed from seeing its 2020 season come to an end at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs, controlled the first half and took a 12-point lead into the locker room before the Chiefs' high-flying offense erupted. Kansas City scored almost every time it had the ball in the second half to topple the Browns, 33-29, on a balmy season-opener at Arrowhead Stadium.
"We didn't play our best when it mattered and we didn't coach our best when it mattered," Stefanski said. "Versus a team like this, you've got to play a 60-minute game and we didn't do that.
"It's a 60-minute game and you have to play a 60-minute game. You don't get anything for playing a 30-minute game. Mentality-wise, we got beat, we got out-coached, got out-played. Great football team over there, I have a lot of respect for them and we're turning our attention to Houston."
Baker Mayfield navigated an offense that had its way through the air and on the ground for most of the first half before hitting some bumps in the second. He completed 21-of-28 passes for 321 yards but was intercepted on his final throw of the game, as Chiefs CB Mike Hughes stepped in front of a pass intended for Harrison Bryant to seal it.
"You have to execute critical moments," Mayfield said. "Nothing else matters before those moments. It always comes down to those three, four plays where you look back and say 'if we'd have done this differently, it would have worked.' I'm going to be hard on myself, but go back and attack this week."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Chiefs in week one
The trio of Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce was just too much for Cleveland's revamped defense, which made things tricky at times for Mahomes but ultimately couldn't get enough stops when it needed them.
Mahomes threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns. Kelce had two of them while catching six passes for 76 yards. Hill caught 11 passes for 197 yards, a large chunk of which coming on a 75-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
A costly turnover, an ill-timed three-and-out and a big special teams slip-up was all Kansas City needed to take the lead by the midpoint of the fourth quarter.
"Anytime you go on the road against a really good football team like this team you've got to play clean football," Stefanski said. "I'm sure the stats say you can turn the ball over and still win. Our mentality is we've got to have zero giveaways and we've got to take the ball away on defense and we just didn't do that today."
Trailing 22-10, the Chiefs opened the second half by doing to the Browns what the Browns did to the Chiefs to start the game. Mahomes' 11-yard touchdown pass to Kelce capped a 14-play drive that took more than half of the third quarter.
Three plays into the ensuing possession, Kansas City got the ball back after a rare fumble from Nick Chubb. The Chiefs chipped into the lead even further with a Harrison Butker 43-yard field goal, slicing the Browns' lead down to two heading into the fourth quarter.
"No excuse for that," Chubb said. "I take complete blame for that. The momentum shift, all that, was on me. All I can do now is learn from that and not let it happen anymore."
The Browns delivered a resounding, methodical response on the following drive to build the lead back to two possessions thanks to a 2-yard touchdown run from Kareem Hunt. The momentum swing just didn't last long, as Mahomes came right back with a heave to Hill, who caught it, spun and ran the rest untouched for a 75-yard touchdown.
"During the week I said, you can't let somebody get behind you and somebody got behind me," S John Johnson III said. "He scrambled and made a great play. Giving up plays like that will get you beat. Just got to go back to the drawing board and get it fixed."
An ill-timed three-and-out from the Browns offense went from bad to worse when P Jamie Gillan bobbled the snap and opted to run with it for a loss. Mahomes' second touchdown pass to Kelce staked Kansas City to its first lead with 7:04 to play.
The Browns went three-and-out on the next possession but got one more chance with 2:49 to play. Cleveland got to midfield after a 19-yard screen to Hunt but gave the ball back for good when a scrambling Mayfield was picked by Hughes.
"It's all the little things that matter," Mayfield said. "It's very frustrating because they're there. When you play the Chiefs and teams of that caliber, if you don't execute, you're going to lose."
The Browns scored touchdowns on their first three possessions to take a 22-10 lead, which they'd carry into the half. Cleveland hummed along with the kind of efficiency that made it one of the league's best offenses during the second half of 2020, averaging 8.8 yards per play on the game's first three possessions and converting multiple fourth downs inside the red zone to keep the Chiefs on their heels.
Chubb scored twice in the first half, the first coming at the end of Cleveland's 13-play, 75-yard drive to open the game and the second with 2:55 to play in the second quarter. The Browns completely fooled Kansas City with their play design, and Chubb ran untouched for the 18-yard score to give Cleveland to a two-possession lead.
The Browns opened the second quarter with their second touchdown of the game, as Jarvis Landry took a fourth-and-1 handoff and spun his way into the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown run.
"We were calling some shot plays because they were working and we weren't taking negative plays," Mayfield said. "Kevin's calling plays he feels comfortable with. If we're not making negative plays and we're taking check downs, moving the chains on those shot plays, then he's going to keep doing that."
Chubb led the Browns on the ground with 83 yards and two touchdowns. Hunt added 33 and a score. David Njoku led the Browns with three catches for 76 yards while rookie Anthony Schwartz hauled in three passes for 69 yards in his NFL debut.
The Chiefs got their yards and points in the first half, but the Browns made it a little tougher on them than the teams' 2020 matchup. The Browns forced a field goal on the opening drive before Mahomes scored on a 5-yard run midway through the second quarter to cut into Cleveland's lead.
The Browns played without two key starters for the majority of Sunday's game. T Jedrick Wills Jr. was lost early in the second quarter to an ankle injury while S Ronnie Harrison Jr. was ejected in the first quarter following a post-play skirmish on the Chiefs sideline.
The Browns are back in action Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium for their home opener when they face the Houston Texans.
"We have to turn around and play the 1-0 Houston Texans at our place and the guys have to have a great week of practice and that is where our mentality really will be moving forward," Stefanski said. "We have to flush this one very quickly."