The theme of this year’s NFL season was resilience, and no team embodies this ethos more than head coach Kevin Stefanski’s Cleveland Browns.
Propelled by gutsy play-calling and a standout performance from their backup quarterback, Chad Henne, the Kansas City Chiefs narrowly triumphed in a 22-17 win against the Browns in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
A week prior in the Wild Card Round, the Browns conjured up a historic 48-37 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The victory snapped the Browns’ 17-game losing streak at Heinz Field and secured their first divisional round appearance since 1994.
The Browns’ victory over the Steelers was their second consecutive win over their divisional rivals in two weeks, albeit the first triumph was helped along by the Steelers resting many of their starters. That Week 17 game marked the Browns’ first playoff berth since 2002, a year when Stefanski was still piling up All-Ivy nods and career wins as a Quaker safety.
Though Stefanski graduated in 2004, he was not quite ready to give up his time in the Red and Blue. He returned to Penn’s coaching staff for one year before launching into his ascension on the Minnesota Vikings coaching staff. Serving as a devoted coach in various capacities, Stefanski was finally named the team’s offensive coordinator in 2019.
Stefanski then quickly stepped into an even larger role, as he was hired as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach in 2020. As an offensive guru, spectators and analysts were primed to see if Stefanski could unlock the potential of quarterback Baker Mayfield and the rest of the talented offensive roster.
Stefanski relied heavily on his third-ranked rushing duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to open up the play-action game for Mayfield. Together, Chubb and Hunt racked up over 1,700 rushing yards, despite the former missing several weeks due to injury, and Mayfield notched his best season thus far in the NFL.
Fans were rightfully expecting an electric offensive showdown between the Chiefs and Browns in the divisional round. However, to reach the awaiting Chiefs in Arrowhead, the Browns persevered against several obstacles in the first round of the playoffs. Much of this adversity did not present itself during game time.
In the week leading up to the Browns’ first playoff appearance in 18 years, Stefanski, two assistant coaches, and two players all tested positive for COVID-19. The positive test forced Stefanski to miss the game, leaving the head coaching reins to Cleveland native and Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer.
The positive results also resulted in the Browns’ practice facilities being shut down, meaning the majority of the team’s preparations for its playoff matchup took place over Zoom.
Even more drama transpired that week when wide receiver Rashard Higgins and offensive-lineman Jedrick Wills Jr. were cited for drag racing a couple days after the team’s playoff berth.
The Browns entered their matchup with the Steelers without their head coach, without practice, but with the burden of reversing history.
The Steelers were lauded all season for their stellar defense, which led the NFL in sacks and ranked third in scoring defense. However, the Browns flipped the script on the Steelers, not allowing a single sack on quarterback Baker Mayfield and creating five turnovers to their own zero.
One such turnover was an absolute gift, when the first snap of the game sailed feet above quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, allowing the Browns to recover the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.
The momentum from this first play helped the Browns mount an astounding 28-0 lead just 13 minutes into the game, setting an NFL postseason record for most points in the first quarter. Going into halftime, the Browns were up 35-10 and simply needed to hang on to advance to their first divisional round appearance in over a quarter century.
The Steelers, however, did not roll over and closed the gap to 12 points with a few minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Browns would need to seal the deal with some big plays, and Chubb delivered on a perfectly executed 40-yard screen pass for a touchdown. Now leading 42-23, the game was all but finished.
The Browns were set to play the No. 1 seed and defending champions in the Chiefs. With a win, the Browns would forge history yet again, becoming the first Browns team to win two playoff games since 1950.
A close loss is oftentimes more devastating than a blowout, and this rings very true for the Browns’ 22-17 defeat to the Chiefs. The Browns suffered from missed opportunities, from key injuries, questionable coaching decisions, and a fumble inches away from the end zone.
Just before halftime, the Browns had a chance to operate a ‘two-minute offense’ and close in on the 16-3 Kansas City lead. Against a team as offensively explosive as the Chiefs, the Browns needed all the possible points they could get.
In Browns fashion, a terrific play quickly turned into tragedy, as wide receiver Higgins fumbled a near-touchdown into the back of the end zone for a Chiefs touchback. The Chiefs then were able to drive the ball down the field, kick a field goal, and extend their lead to 19-3 moving into the break.
The Browns were yet another victim of one of the NFL’s most unpopular rules, and the unlucky play ultimately caused a 10-point turnaround. Despite some of the Browns’ misfortune, the team was handed plenty of opportunities by the Chiefs.
Not only did Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker leave four points on the board, but MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes was ruled out after suffering a concussion, bringing in backup Chad Henne, who hadn’t won an NFL game since 2013.
The Browns capitalized on this massive momentum shift, scoring two touchdowns to bring the score to 22-17. Then, they were handed another gift, as Henne threw a lofty pass to the end zone that was easily intercepted by the Browns.
With over a half of the fourth quarter to go, Mayfield and the Browns’ offense had plenty of time to operate — maybe too much time.
Stefanski was harshly criticized for the following drive, which ultimately ate up over four minutes of the clock and resulted in a punt. Now, it was up to the Browns’ suspect defense to stop the Henne-led Chiefs and give their offense another shot.
Facing a third down with 14 yards to go, Henne miraculously scrambled near the first down marker. Though it appeared Henne captured the game-winning first down, he turned up short.
On the ensuing fourth and 1, it appeared the Chiefs offense was seeking to draw the Browns’ defense offsides. To every viewer’s surprise, head coach Andy Reid was running a play at midfield: Henne rolled right and easily found wide receiver Tyreek Hill to grab the first down and seal the game.
For the Chiefs, it was a celebration. For the Browns, the play marked another year of devastation.
“It stings,” Stefanski said. "We came here to win and didn’t get the job done. There is a finality to that.”
However, setting the exciting finish aside, the Browns accomplished a great deal more than what was expected of them in Stefanski's first year at the helm. Just a few years removed from a winless season in 2017, the Browns were single plays away from their first conference appearance since 1950.
Stefanski may tell you that without the Lombardi trophy residing in Cleveland, this season was a disappointment. For every NFL head coach, a season falls short if their team does not win the season’s final game.
But the truth is that Stefanski’s year as head coach is a resounding victory for the Browns and points towards their bright future. Stefanski is the frontrunner for the Coach of Year Award, which will be presented at the NFL Honors Ceremony on Feb. 6.
The Browns seem to have found a successful tandem in Mayfield, Stefanski, and first-year general manager Andrew Berry. The city’s loyal fans are hopeful that this season will usher in a new era for Cleveland Browns’ football.