CLEVELAND — “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,” is a popular quote that has been circulating on the internet for years, and no better words can describe the Cleveland Browns this season.
Yes, the Browns lost to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday 22-17, and yes, their playoff run has come to an end. But that's not what we should take away from today.
The Chiefs took an early lead over the Browns with a 75-yard touchdown drive to open things up. Fortunately for the Browns, Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker missed the extra point.
While there were some promising plays in the Browns’ opening drive, the offensive line took a hit after left tackle Jedrick Wills left the field with an ankle injury and the Browns could only come up with three points from a 47-yard field goal from Cody Parkey.
The game began to spiral out of control in the second quarter after Chiefs tight end and Cleveland Heights native Travis Kelce put cornerback Denzel Ward on skates, coasting past him into the end zone and giving Kansas City a 13-3 lead.
While the Browns' weakness is their defense, the offense wasn’t able to generate much either. After a drive-changing holding call on Wyatt Teller and a bad drop by Nick Chubb on a screen, what started as a promising drive with a big reception by Donovan Peoples-Jones stalled out, and Cleveland was forced to punt.
The Browns suffered some brutal moments, from a Rashard Higgins fumble in the end zone that resulted in a touchback (yes, it’s a terrible rule) to a Baker Mayfield interception, but if there’s one thing we’ve seen of the Browns all season, it's that they don’t give up.
The big swing
Momentum changed in the fourth quarter, after Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was injured—wobbling off the field and later being ruled out of the remainder of the game with a concussion.
An incredible catch by tight end Austin Hooper followed by a touchdown run by running back Kareem Hunt put the Browns back in the game down just 22-17.
Driving towards the end zone, the Chiefs were exploiting the Browns' defense until quarterback Chad Henne threw a deep ball into the end zone, which Browns safety Karl Joseph played perfectly and picked off, keeping points off the board for the Chiefs.
But the Browns were unable to capitalize and couldn’t score. After the Browns punted, the Chiefs controlled the ball, and as the Browns were out of timeouts, they sealed the win with a first down to run the clock down.
Not the same old Browns
It was a heartbreaking loss because it was so close. They were right there, and with some adjustments with challenges and clock management, the game could have been theirs.
But keep things in perspective—the Browns lost to the reigning Super Bowl champs and kept it competitive all the way through.
And while the season is over, there is still plenty to look forward to next season.
It’s clear that head coach Kevin Stefanski can bring the Browns success and Baker Mayfield can be the franchise quarterback the Browns have been searching for. The organization has found its offensive identity, and it's a thing of beauty when they're executing.
We’ve seen KhaDarel Hodge and Donovan Peoples-Jones step out as talented and dependable receivers and Rashard Higgins get back to his red carpet strolls. The heart of the team, Jarvis Landry, fought through injury and continued motivating the team to never give up, even after his teammate and best friend Odell Beckham Jr. suffered a torn ACL and his season came to an end.
Nick Chubb, arguably the backbone of the team, with the help of Kareem Hunt, created the most explosive backfield in the league and helped the Browns establish that offensive identity.
From Austin Hooper to David Njoku and rookie Harrison Bryant, the Browns gave us a taste of the roles tight ends can serve in Stefanski’s offense.
One of the Browns’ biggest weaknesses last season—the offensive line—was bolstered with the acquisition of Jack Conklin and the selection of Jedrick Wills Jr. in this past draft. Their additions gave veteran guard Joel Bitonio and PFF’s highest ranked guard in the league Wyatt Teller the boost they needed to create the forceful line that kept Mayfield clean often and created lanes for the running game to take off.
Myles Garrett, despite getting COVID-19 and missing two games, had a dominating season and continued to prove what a force he is, both on and off the field.
Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi and Adrian Clayborn proved themselves this season and helped create a powerful front four. Oliver Vernon had a standout season before rupturing his Achilles in the last week of the regular season.
While the Browns' secondary struggled throughout the season, Denzel Ward proved to be an elite playmaker once again, Karl Joseph stepped up in big ways. and Ronnie Harrison came out as one of the Browns best acquisitions so far by general manager Andrew Berry.
In the face of adversity—losing Grant Delpit at the start of the season, losing Beckham, missing Chubb and Garrett, as well as Greedy Williams, at points throughout the season—the Browns never faltered, refusing to make excuses and working through every challenge thrown their way.
Back to work
The Browns have areas to improve on—like bolstering the defense, particularly in the linebackers room, but Berry was successful with his offensive moves last offseason and will hopefully continue that success into this offseason.
Stefanski, and the core of the team, walk away from Sunday’s defeat with lessons learned and playoff experience under their belt.
Players who were lost for the season, like Delpit, Beckham and Williams, may provide a boost next season in their return.
In the meantime, as the offseason approaches and football season in Northeast Ohio comes to a close, it looks like the Browns have a bright future ahead of them and the success in Cleveland is just beginning.
"I told some of the guys who are for sure going to be back that we will be back," Mayfield said after Sunday's game. "There's a new standard here...We've come a long way since I first got here but we aren't done yet and that's the best part."
Here’s to next year, Browns fans.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.