The Cleveland Browns punched their ticket to the NFL playoffs on Sunday for the first time since 2002. They did it by beating their rival in the AFC North Division; the Pittsburgh Steelers. What a treat it is that we get to watch that matchup once again for the second week in a row. The few differences in this game are that Pittsburgh will start Ben Roethlisberger and the game is in Pittsburgh instead of Cleveland.
The whole NFL has had to deal with their fair share of COVID outbreaks this season and has done a fantastic job powering through to complete the regular season on schedule. Cleveland has been one of the teams that have been hit hard. It all started before their week 16 matchup against the New York Jets. The COVID protocols resulted in the entire starting lineup of wide receivers to miss that game because of close contact with a positive patient of COVID.
As we get reading for primetime Cleveland on Sunday Night Football, more news keeps breaking out about COVID within the Browns facility.
We were informed this morning that Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, two additional members of the coaching staff and two players have tested positive for COVID-19.
Our contingency planning calls for Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer to serve as the acting Head Coach. pic.twitter.com/Mhh9Zt1e4d
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 5, 2021
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 7, 2021
You can’t make this stuff up. Only in a season that started in 2020 would the Cleveland Browns finally make the playoffs and have this happen to them. Kevin Stefanski has totally changed the culture in Cleveland and has these players thinking of a trip to Tampa Bay. Losing his ability to call the game for Cleveland is a major loss for these Browns. They have looked up to him all season and now he won’t even be there to guide his team in the biggest game of the season.
Losing your head coach is bad, but how about a pro-bowler that has been with the team through hell and back? Browns LG Joel Bitonio has spent his entire seven-year career in Cleveland has seen it all in that span. He stuck with them through the 1-31 record in two seasons and now he finally makes the playoffs. That is put on hold as he is out of the game for testing positive for COVID.
#Browns LG Joel Bitonio is a three-time Pro Bowler who has spent his entire seven-year career in Cleveland, playing for five different head coaches and enduring six losing seasons (including 1-15 and 0-16). They finally make the playoffs … and Bitonio is out with COVID. Brutal.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 5, 2021
Despite all these events, the game is still scheduled to be played Sunday Night with no signs of postponement. Cleveland will be without a handful of starters against a Steelers team that is almost at full health. Brutal for Cleveland. Even though these are not promising signs for Cleveland, I still believe they have a shot in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh will plan on having a limited amount of fans for this game. We all know how loud it can be at Heinz Field at full capacity. Despite some fans being there, not having a full stadium for a playoff game could be mentally challenging for the Steelers and a major advantage for Cleveland.
Cleveland’s defense can still be deadly. Myles Garrett is a sack machine and can turn a game around instantly. Pass coverage has been a problem for Cleveland, but it still can be rock solid in the toughest moments. They will have their hands full with receivers like Claypool and Juju.
Baker Mayfield is getting his shot to prove why he is a franchise QB. His talents are going to be on full display and I am confident he will come out firing with a lot to prove for both himself and his team. The Browns also still have the deadliest running back combo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. They can easily take over a game and shift momentum in favor of Cleveland.
The Browns also have many weapons in the passing game. Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper can be really effective in the red zone and on plays to get a first down on a short field. Not having OBJ is a big loss, but Cleveland has found a grove with him out of the lineup. If Cleveland can get their offense in a rhythm early and often, Pittsburgh will need to match it or Cleveland will pull off the upset.