CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns are going to the playoffs.
Read it again. And then again. It’s really happening.
For the first time in 18 years, the Browns will make a postseason appearance after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
It was a hard-fought journey that was in question after the Browns began going through COVID-19 issues ahead of the Week 16 match-up with the New York Jets, taking out all but one of the wide receivers on the 53-man roster as well as two linebackers.
But despite a truly disappointing loss last week, the Browns got players back from the reserve/COVID-19, held their own and capitalized on the Steelers’ lack of starters as they rested to prepare for their already solidified playoff game.
The Browns' defense opened up the game with a solid opening drive, forcing the Steelers to punt on their first possession.
Cleveland opened up the game strong on offense, feeding running back Nick Chubb, who turned in a massive 47-yard touchdown run to take an early lead over Pittsburgh.
Things got a bit ugly in the third quarter (if you can say that about a win) when the Steelers closed things up to a one-point game, but after an interception from M.J. Stewart and a touchdown run from Jarvis Landry (what can’t he do, right?) the Browns got back to a comfortable two-score lead.
Pittsburgh closed the deficit to two points, but the Browns held them off and, thanks to a gutsy 1-yard run by quarterback Baker Mayfield on the next possession, they moved the chains for a first down one last time to seal the game and get the win.
Led by head coach Kevin Stefanski, who is all but a shoo-in for the Coach of the Year Award now, the Browns have come into their own. In Baker Mayfield they’ve found the franchise quarterback they’ve spent years searching for. In Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt they’ve created an unstoppable backfield, helping reach Stefanski’s offensive philosophy of marrying the run and the pass game. In Bill Callahan, they’ve developed a strong offensive line featuring Jedrick Wills Jr., Jack Conklin, Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter and Wyatt Teller.
General Manager Andrew Berry brought in key offensive weapons like Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper, while also tendering the contracts of key players such as Hunt and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge.
When owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam held their first press conference after firing former head coach Freddie Kitchen and former general manager John Dorsey, the Browns organization started mentioning the idea of finding “alignment.”
“I think everybody talks a lot about structure – and I think structure is important – but I think far more important are these two things: getting the right people and making sure they are aligned. If you looked at the other 31 teams, there are all kinds of different structures, but if you look at the successful organizations that are consistently in the playoffs year after year, there is alignment within the organization, and they have the right people in the right place – coach and GM,” Jimmy Haslam said in January. “That is what we are focusing on tremendously, and that alignment is something that is really, really important. It sounds easy, but it is not.”
Now, in January, it’s safe to say they hit the mark.
Aligned, successful and thriving, the Browns have arrived.
No matter the outcome next weekend, the 2020-21 season gave the Browns exactly what they’ve been missing for decades—a culture change and a winning mentality.
Now, your Cleveland Browns are on to the playoffs.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.