The Cleveland Browns will be just fine on Sunday Night Football when they play the Pittsburgh Steelers in their first NFL playoff game in 18 seasons.
Really! They will!
Even though this was a week from hell, with the news that Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski has now tested positive for the Covid virus and won’t be allowed to attend the game. The Browns have been prepped in this new normal because of the virus and what it’s done to the Browns in their preparations for games all season long. You add in Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and his season rejuvenation, the Browns strong running duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and throw in the added bonus that the game will not be played in front of that intimidating Steelers fan base Sunday night, the Browns have every reason to believe that they’ll beat the Steelers again!
Yes, coach Stefanski will be absent from the field of play come Sunday night because NFL policy won’t allow for him to coach or have contact during the game from home because he might have a “competitive” edge. The truth of the matter is that the Browns have gotten to this point by not playing by the standard norms of past seasons. Yes, Stefanski will be missed, but everything the Browns have done in preparing, week in and week out, isn’t much different today than it was in Week 1 of the season. Now in Week 18, even though the Browns haven’t been able to practice in person, they’ve spent a season having meetings and practices virtually. Yes, it would be nice to have that time on the field to practice, but that’s not in the cards. So we play through.
The Browns have benefited from coach Stefanski’s leadership and they’ve learned from him that things aren’t normal and that they have to “embrace the suck” and try and go 1-0 on the week. This week, Stefanski said in a preview of the game Sunday, “ I have guys on this staff that have won Super Bowls, players that have won Super Bowls. Guys have been there and they understand once you get there, you have a chance. I reminded players of that today. There are 14 teams in this thing, you have a chance.” He has preached this type of message throughout the season and the players are listening. Browns lineman Jack Conklin commented, “… The records don’t matter anymore. Anybody’s got a chance to go as far as they can. It’s going to be extra physical… do or die. It’s going to be a hard-fought battle.”
With Stefanski’s leadership, a stronghold on the Browns, having their emotional and motivating quarterback Baker Mayfield throwing darts and managing to finish the regular season with 26 touchdown passes to only eight interceptions, the team is very willing and ready to play with nothing to lose Sunday. A dangerous Mayfield has mostly been a good Mayfield. I like to go back to the two games in October when the Browns first lost to Pittsburgh badly and then a week later the Browns got down to the Cincinnati Bengals on the road early. Mayfield still seemed timid in that game, but then the dangerous and more focused Mayfield reappeared. He ripped off 22 completions in a row and helped win it, very late, when he hit wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones in the corner of the endzone for the victory.
After Superman-like appearances all season by Mayfield, the Browns also have that Fire and Ice Duo in the backfield, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Both have been steady all season, as Chubb went over the 1000 yard mark for the season, after missing a chunk of games mid-season due to injury and Hunt has run and caught 11 touchdowns this season being Mr. Versatile. Both bring that additional dynamic that I think will play a big role Sunday night in determining the outcome.
Finally, without Pittsburgh Steelers fans allowed to attend the game because of Pennsylvania state Covid restrictions, the home-field advantage that the Steelers have been accustomed to will not be there. And that can only enhance the Browns’ chances Sunday night.
I believe in this new Browns team and their coach. I understand that Stefanski will not be there but this game means more to the Browns than it does the Steelers and I believe the Browns will continue to rise up to the occasion. This whole Browns season has been a bit off-center, so why can’t the game Sunday continue that pattern? Stefanski said today to the local media about his team, “They don’t need a Zoom call from me before the game to understand what they need to do.”
Moving on from one distraction to the next has been the new norm for the Browns and each time this team has adapted and risen! And as I’ve mentioned time and time again, it’s because this team believes in itself, and the players are ready for the opportunity. Browns wide receiver and the heart and soul of the team, Jarvis Landry said earlier this week, “Nobody expected us to make the playoffs, nobody expected us to win 11 games, nobody expected things to turn around in Cleveland.” But players like Landry did expect all that and that’s why this Browns team is different and they’re in the playoffs. Look for the Browns to win Sunday night and continue with that belief in the team. Go Browns!