The longest postseason draught in the NFL came to an end last week when the Cleveland Browns qualified for the playoff tournament for the first time in 18 years. However, the celebration did not last long: just two days after their sixth-seed-clinching victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday, the coronavirus hit the organization once again.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive and was quickly ruled out for Cleveland’s playoff opener/Week 17 rematch against the Steelers. The same goes for tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard.
The virus also entered the locker room and forced the Browns to send wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, and cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson to the Reserve/Covid-19 list (safety Jovante Moffatt was sent there as well but has since returned after not being identified as a close contact). Also on that list is veteran guard Joel Bitonio.
Bitonio’s absence in particular is a blow to the club not just because of his status as one of the best interior offensive linemen in football. He also is one of the team’s emotional leaders.
A second-round draft pick by the Browns in 2014, he lived through all of the lows that was the organization’s recent history. Six straight losing seasons. Three coaching changes. 0-16. The Johnny Manziel era. Now, after all these years of heartbreak, he was finally getting a chance to play in his first playoff game. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Bitonio might have a chance to return next week, but his teammates will first have to beat the Steelers and the odds — they are 6-point underdogs — to keep their season alive.
They will have to do so without their head coach and two of his assistants.
They will have to do so without Bitonio and three others.
They will have to do so with their coaches taking a literal road trip to Pittsburgh:
Sources: As a precaution, all the Browns coaches are driving to Pittsburgh for tomorrow's playoff game—the team has offered them car service or they can drive themselves. Those guys are on the road now.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) January 9, 2021
(Idea is to protect the coaches, better space the players on the flight.)
They also will have to do so without the injured Odell Beckham Jr, Olivier Vernon and Grant Delpit.
All in all, Cleveland will have its work cut out for it despite beating Pittsburgh just one week ago. A lot has changed over those last few days, after all, and the Browns are now entering their first playoff game in almost two decades pretty shorthanded.
But at least they get to experience that postseason feeling today after a week filled with uncertainty:
And — who knows? — maybe they defy the odds and do something they failed to do during their last playoff appearance: beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh.