The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, January 12, 2021 1:00 am


Coach as ecstatic as any Browns fan

TOM WITHERS | Associated Press

CLEVELAND – Nervously sitting in front of a TV while secluded in his basement at home, coach Kevin Stefanski watched his Browns' shocking playoff win – the team's first in 26 years – like one of the team's many long-suffering, faithful fans.

From the sideline to the sofa.

His phone turned off, Stefanski, who was isolated from his team and family after contracting COVID-19 last week, felt helpless, torn as he paced.

“I don't plan on doing that again,” he said.

Stefanski expects he won't have to, and Cleveland won't have to wait another generation between postseason appearances.

The Browns' strange 2020 season continues. They're one of four teams left in the AFC with a matchup set for Sunday against the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

Given little chance without their coach, several key players and unable to practice much last week, the Browns pulled off a stunning 48-37 wild-card win at Pittsburgh that exorcised years of failure and painful frustration against their rivals. Perhaps it kicked off a new era for a franchise that means more to its city than many in the NFL.

When the Browns arrived back in Cleveland at around 3 a.m. Monday, their plane was welcomed at the airport by barking, chanting fans.

“We have to keep it going,” said Stefanski, who anticipates returning to the team's facility Thursday.

Naturally, the Browns missed having their rookie coach while playing their first playoff game since the 2002 season. Stefanski's steadiness has been instrumental in keeping his players on task and focused during the pandemic.

They've bought in to Stefanski's team-above-all message, which isn't unique. But it's one that has been re-enforced during a season when injuries have forced the Browns to count on players who began the year buried on the depth chart or elsewhere.

Cleveland's offensive line depth is so decimated by injuries – and Pro Bowler Joel Bitonio being out with COVID-19 – that during the nerve-racking fourth quarter as the Steelers rallied, the left guard was Blake Hance. He spent 16 weeks on the Jets' practice squad before the Browns signed him in an emergency last week.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield introduced himself to Hance in the locker room before the game.

Stefanski hopes to do the same soon.

“I am looking forward to it,” Stefanski said.

What's working

Just about everything went right as the Browns ended their 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh.

Cleveland's defense forced five turnovers, including three in the first quarter, while building a 21-0 lead.

Also, taking over Stefanski's play-calling duties, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt kept the Steelers off-balance with a mixture of formations. The Browns were expected to run the ball more, and even with the big lead, Van Pelt kept Mayfield firing.

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