Cleveland fans didn’t have to wait very long to see that something special was afoot. OK, sure, it had been 17 years since the Browns’ last postseason appearance and 26 years since their last win. But it took just seconds for Sunday night’s wild-card game to get off to a happy start for Cleveland. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ veteran center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball over Ben Roethlisberger’s head, and Cleveland safety Karl Joseph fell on it in the end zone to give the Browns an instant 7–0 lead.
This was Angels in the Outfield stuff, and the comical intervention helped expunge decades of Browns-ian folly. By the end of the quarter Roethlisberger had thrown three interceptions and Cleveland had a 28–0 lead, the largest first-quarter scoring margin in NFL postseason history. But as William Peter Blatty taught us, you can’t give up on an exorcism until the final whistle. After withstanding an inevitable Steelers comeback, Cleveland left Pittsburgh with a 48–37 win. Browns fans are hoping they won’t have to wait until 2046 for the next one.
“Cleveland Wins Playoff Game” is a surprising enough headline; the last time it happened Bill Belichick was the Browns’ coach and the television broadcast didn’t even feature a yellow first down line. But Sunday’s triumph was shocking for reasons beyond “mistake by the lake” baggage. Cleveland had to prepare for and play the game without its first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, who tested positive for COVID-19 the previous week. Two offensive assistants also tested positive, as did Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge.
Due to NFL protocols, Stefanski had to watch Sunday’s game from his basement, with no way to communicate with his players and staff. In the Browns’ biggest miscue of the game, he apparently didn’t see the first-play botched snap in real time, as he’d paused his television and was 45 seconds behind the live action.
That the Browns played their best football with Stefanski out of state and under a gag order can be seen as either a testament to or an indictment of his coaching skills. And, considering that the COVID-addled Browns were unable to train during the week (they couldn’t even conduct a walk-through until Saturday), what does the team’s victory say about the value of late-season practices? Some former NFL players have an idea.
The Browns will be praised for overcoming adversity, and deservedly so. When their third-string guard went down with an injury in the fourth quarter, he was replaced by “a guy named Blake” who had to drive himself to Pittsburgh and who introduced himself to quarterback Baker Mayfield in the locker room before the game.
While the Browns’ win may have been unexpected, the challenges they had to overcome were entirely predictable. The NFL’s approach to a virus that has killed more than 370,000 Americans to date has been to barrel right through it. Not a single franchise made it through the season without placing at least one player on the COVID-19 injured reserve list. This wasn’t even the Browns’ first mass COVID event—their entire wide receiver corps had to quarantine and miss a Week 16 loss to the Jets. They may not have gotten to run through their plays in pads, but Cleveland at least had some experience playing in the midst of a plague.
In football, most “feel-good” stories require you to ignore a lot of bad stuff. Cleveland’s amazing win was no exception—and for reasons beyond just the pandemic. Anyone with an elementary understanding of how graphs work could have told you that the NFL’s opening playoff weekend was going to coincide with the pandemic’s deadliest days, but the league’s commitment to bread and circuses will not waiver. And if there’s an outbreak at the circus? The show must go on.