The NFL’s longest playoff draft ended last week when the Cleveland Browns advanced to the playoff tournament for the first time in 18 years. However, the celebration did not last long: just two days after their sixth victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday, the coronavirus hit the organization again.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive and was quickly ruled out of the Cleveland / Week 17 playoff opener 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 (security Jovante Moffatt was also sent there but has since returned after not being identified as close contact). Veteran guard Joel Bitonio is also on that list.
The absence of Bitonio in particular is a blow to the club not only because of his status as one of football’s top attacking linemen. He is also one of the emotional leaders of the team.
A second-round pick for the Browns in 2014, he’s been through all the troughs in the organization’s recent history. Six consecutive losing seasons. Three coaching changes. 0-16. The Johnny Manziel era. Now, after all those years of heartbreak, he finally had the chance to play his first playoff game. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Bitonio might have a chance to come back next week, but his teammates will first have to beat the Steelers and the odds – they’re 6-point underdogs – to keep their season alive.
They will have to do it without their head coach and two of his assistants.
They will have to do it without Bitonio and three others.
They will have to do it with their coaches doing a real road trip in Pittsburgh:
Sources: As a precaution, all Browns coaches are heading to Pittsburgh for tomorrow’s playoff game – the team has offered them car service or they can drive themselves. These guys are on the road now.
(The idea is to protect the coaches, to better space the players on the flight.)
– Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) January 9, 2021
They will also have to do it without the injured Odell Beckham Jr, Olivier Vernon and Grant Delpit.
Overall, Cleveland will have its work cut out for it despite beating Pittsburgh just a week ago. Much has changed in the past few days, after all, and the Browns are now entering their first playoff game in nearly two decades on a penalty kill.
But at least they get that postseason feeling today after a week filled with uncertainty:
– Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) January 10, 2021
And who knows? – maybe they’re defying the odds and doing something they failed to do in their last playoff appearance: beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh.