CLEVELAND, Ohio — Kevin Stefanski wasn’t playing with house money and wasn’t content with advancing to the AFC Divisional round.
The Browns went to Kansas City to upset the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs, and were crushed to lose 22-17 with a chance to pull it out in the end, especially with Patrick Mahomes out with a probable concussion for most of the second half.
“Looking back on the season, as we all do with the finality of this thing and it is over, I think we definitely achieved a lot,’’ he said in his wrap-up press conference. “We did some things we set out to do, but ultimately, we came up short and there’s a very real sense of disappointment there among our players and coaches right now. We can definitely look back and see some things that we accomplished and be proud of that.”
He said plenty of his players Monday in their exit meetings vowed to come back better and even more determined.
“I appreciate that from the guys,’’ he said. “It’s very hard not to be game planning today. It’s very hard for those guys not to be getting treatment and getting ready for the next one. You get into the rhythm of this season, and I think all of them really wanted to keep it going.”
It’s especially hard because the Browns know they could’ve knocked off the Chiefs and advanced to the AFC Championship game Sunday against the Bills. Mahomes was knocked out of the game with a probable concussion midway through the third quarter with the Chiefs up only 19-10, and Karl Joseph picked off Chad Henne in the end zone with eight minutes left and the Chiefs clinging to a 22-17 lead.
“That’s where I thought that game was going to be,’’ Stefanski said. “I thought it was going to be tight and we were going to have an opportunity late in the game and we were going to have to go on and drive. I just didn’t put the guys in position to succeed. That’s where I’m going to work really hard to make sure the next time that we’re in that situation that I do. We came up short and did not get it done, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.
“That’s where I really appreciate the guys we have because you knew they were going to fight and they did, but I have to do a better job.”
The Browns, with left tackle Jedrick Wills out of the game with an ankle injury, mustered only 12 yards on the ensuing drive, punted on a 4th and 9 from their 32 with 4:09 left, and never got the ball back as Henne scrambled for 13 yards on 3rd and 14 and completed a 5-yard pass on fourth and inches to seal the victory.
“The margin in this game is so razor thin, and especially in the playoffs, and everything gets magnified,’’ Stefanski said. “To go on the road and beat the defending champs, you’re going to have to make a bunch of plays. Ultimately, we just came up short. That’s where I’m looking at myself and saying, ‘What could I have done better?’ There’s a very real disappointment in coming up short.”
While folks thought the Browns were just happy to upset the Steelers 48-37 in the wild card game, they weren’t done yet. They expected to beat the Chiefs, and came close. But they dropped about five passes and lost the turnover battle 2-1.
“The expectations for us will always be to play to win that last game,’’ Stefanski said. “That’s where the disappointment comes when you come up short and you don’t get into that second-to-last weekend of that season. When you taste the success like we did this season, guys understand that the work that they did was what allowed them to taste that success.’’
Stefanski knows what he’s up against with the younger generation of quarterbacks in the NFL, particularly in the AFC. The Browns know they’ll have to get past the likes of Mahomes, Josh Allen and others over the years if they want to get to the Super Bowl. Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, led his team its third straight AFC Championship Game, and is aiming to defend their Super Bowl title.
“To get to that final game when you have to play in the AFC, there are tough outs everywhere you look,’’ he said. “That’s the nature of this beast. There are a bunch of great players in the AFC, and you mentioned those quarterbacks, we recognize that. Ultimately, to be the best, you have to beat the best.
“We’ll have to spend a lot of time this offseason in finding ways to make sure that we’re getting better. We have to get better as a football team. I have to get better as a coach. That will be our focus moving forward.”
Despite the disappointment, he’s developed an affinity for his first team, which bonded on Zoom in the offseason and fought through arguably the worst COVID-19 crisis in the NFL.
“I’m proud of our guys for battling all season long,’’ he said. “I’m proud of the guys for putting up with the coaches and us moving the schedule on them constantly. I’m proud of how resilient they were in that regard and how resilient they were in different ball games. I’m proud of how they fought yesterday. I think we established our identity this season on offense, defense and special teams. We accomplished some of our goals – ultimately, not all of our goals – but I definitely can look back and tell you that I am proud of the effort of our players, our coaches and our staff.”
While the players and coaches were still wearing the heavy cloak of disappointment on Monday, they landed in Cleveland late Sunday night to hundreds of fans cheering them on.
“Our fans are incredible,’’ Stefanski said. “It’s something that people told me about, and I got to experience it this season in a different way. I can’t wait to experience it with 67,000 strong in FirstEnergy (Stadium) next season. An incredible fan base here in the city, in Northeast Ohio and around the world. I have heard from a bunch of them. We appreciate their support. I wish we were still playing football for them.”
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