Heinz Field is the location. The Steelers are the opponent (again). And the playoffs — on Sunday Night Football — is the stage.
It’s exactly what players like Mayfield, Landry, Bitonio, Garrett and more pictured when they envisioned being part of a winning football team in Cleveland. It’s what Stefanski vowed to bring when he was hired nearly a year ago.
Now, it’s finally here. The Browns have become the NFL’s most recent team to shed several years of baggage from unsuccessful football, and they did it after months of virtual meetings, last-minute schedule changes and finding ways to build chemistry and trust despite little person-to-person interactions due to the pandemic.
Nothing about 2020 was truly normal in the NFL, but the Browns still found a way to finally reach the top of the mountain in building a playoff-caliber football team. And the credit is being spread to all corners of the team.
“Really organizationally, just thinking about all of the people who have wanted this and wanted to taste this, I’m really proud to be a part of this for them,” said Stefanski, who gave game balls to Dee and Jimmy Haslam and Bitonio in the locker room. “(There are) people who have been with the organization for a long time, and they deserve this, so I’m happy for them.”
But all key figures who have helped turn the franchise into a winner in 2020 recognize that the job isn’t done. They’re not at the finish line. They’ve just moved to the front of the pack.
A winning “culture” isn’t short-term, temporary success. It must be sustained, and the most the Browns can do to keep that going this season is by keeping another game on their schedule.
“It’s about never being satisfied and understanding that you can’t be satisfied,” Landry said. “We’re creating a standard here. This is playoff football, and we’re here. We have an opportunity to just keep on going forward one game at a time. That’s how we have to look at it.”
The Browns are going back to step No. 1. This year, though, that first step requires coaches to develop their 17th weekly game plan of the season. For players, that first step requires reviewing tape and practicing on the grass in Berea for another week. For everyone, it requires hopping on a bus, traveling to the home of an AFC North rival and preparing for the biggest game many of them have ever been a part of.
It’s no longer about packing up belongings in a locker room, conducting exit interviews and preparing for a long offseason. Not this year.
The playoffs have arrived in Cleveland. And for several players, coaches and team members who vowed to bring positive change …
Well, their promise is being fulfilled.
“We have a chance,” Bitonio said. “We’re in the dance.”