Joel Bitonio’s eyes lit up at the news.
The veteran offensive lineman has been through plenty of tough Decembers in Cleveland. This year, though, has been different, as the Browns enter their home finale with wins in four of their last five games.
A sellout crowd awaits.
“It’s big news,” Bitonio said.
ClevelandBrowns.com caught up with Bitonio after Friday’s practice to get his full assessment of Sunday’s game and beyond.
CB.com: What’s this recent stretch of good football meant to you as one of the longest-tenured members of the team?
Bitonio: It’s been good to put together a couple of wins here. We have two in a row, then four of five and then we’re trying to finish the season with a couple more. It’s been good to feel wins, learn how to win some close games. That was pretty much a playoff elimination game last week. I know the games on Sunday didn’t go our way but against the Denver the loser was out. We found a way to win. It wasn’t the prettiest but the good teams in the league -- I’m not saying we’re there yet -- find ways to win games.
CB.com: You got to scoreboard-watch Sunday. It didn’t go as planned but what did that feel like?
Bitonio: It was cool. We didn’t get home until 5 a.m. from Denver. I don’t know what took so long but it was a late night. I woke up at 12 and I was like, ‘Let’s see what games we’ve got.’ I know I had to watch Baltimore and then Pittsburgh play. Pittsburgh was the big one and they ended up pulling it off. It was fun to watch a game where it’s like, ‘Hey, if this team loses we still have a chance.’ It was cool to be a part of that. Me and my wife were sitting there rooting against them a little bit. It’s late December and usually around this time we’re thinking about offseason stuff and now it’s, ‘hey, we’ve got a chance to do something’ and we’re trying to work to finish the season with two more wins.
CB.com: Has there been any letdown with the team after the playoff odds shrunk?
Bitonio: No. I don’t think Gregg (Williams) would let us. Gregg’s done a good job of keeping us focused. The whole time it’s been focused on us. We want to really, really try to improve our team each week and try to get the best guys out there. For us to worry about that kind of stuff, it would have been cool to sneak in but we didn’t play well enough early in the year. We’ve got a lot to still improve on. For us, let’s get better this week, let’s go 1-0, let’s get to .500 and we’ll see what happens after that.
CB.com: What did you think of Baker Mayfield’s audible on the goal line against the Broncos?
Bitonio: Pretty impressive. He had a run, and I knew it wasn’t a good run look because I had to block it but for a quarterback to see that was really cool. The communication, it’s a loud stadium. For us to try and communicate back and tell the O-line how we’re blocking it, get the receivers the right routes with some hand signals. Then (Antonio) Callaway made a great play. Wide open, good throw. It was fun. It gave us the lead and ended up being the game-winning score. That was a sweet play, man. It’s something you’ve seen develop since he’s become the starter.
CB.com: What’s the difference with this team in the red zone during the second half of the season compared to, basically, the past few years?
Bitonio: Baker’s really improved. Freddie (Kitchens) has done a good job of getting us in the right plays. Any time we get near the 40 or 30, someone in the huddle -- it might be Jarvis (Landry), it might be myself, it might be JC (Tretter), it might be Kevin (Zeitler) -- someone is saying no penalties, no sacks, no negative plays, we can’t afford to lose it here. Baker’s done a good job making decisions and we’ve done our best to give him the best looks around him and we’ve had some good playcalls. It’s been cool to score touchdowns. It’s almost coming to a place where we get down there and we’re going to put this one in.
CB.com: What makes you most encouraged about 2019?
Bitonio: We’re improving. We’re working and we’ve got hungry, young guys. We’ve got a big group of core guys. It’s not like we have a 13-year guy in place (at quarterback) where we say we’ve got to win now. That’s going to be our mindset but we have a lot of young guys that are going to improve. The Year 1 to Year 2 jump is usually pretty big for a lot of guys. Then you have guys like Myles (Garrett) going 2 to 3, Larry (Ogunjobi) 2 to 3. Then you’ve got the O-line that hopefully will be together coming back. It’s going to be fun. I know we have expectations now and have them for the first time in a while. It’s something we’ve got to work for and live up to. Now instead of working to prove people wrong, we’ve got to work to prove people right.
CB.com: Do you believe in momentum carrying over from one season to the next?
Bitonio: I think so in the sense we’re going to keep a lot of the same guys. A lot of times when you go from year to year and you haven’t been great there’s a lot of turnover. This year, I think the majority of our main pieces will be the same. Obviously we’re going to add some pieces in free agency and the draft. We’re going to keep the majority of the main guys.; the quarterback, the defensive end, the corner. These are cornerstone pieces and those are guys you want to build around. It’s going to be fun to see them develop.
CB.com: There haven’t been many late-season sellouts at FirstEnergy Stadium during your career but Sunday will be just that. What’s that kind of support meant to you?
Bitonio: It’s big news. I know a lot of people have that Monday off so I’m sure it will be pretty rowdy with coach (Hue) Jackson coming to town. We’re giving them something to watch. I understand why people weren’t coming late in the season. It’s cold, Christmas time, there’s reasons not to make it to the game. We’re trying to play our hearts out and we’re giving it everything we have. For them to come out and support us has been awesome. We’ve done well at home this season. We’re trying to finish up with a bang. We’ll be 5-2-1 at home if we win, which is definitely the best record we’ve had in a while. Hopefully we can finish out and get the win and run in that tunnel after the win. It’s special and really cool to see.
CB.com: And a win clinches a winning record in the division, too.
Bitonio: A win would be a winning division record and a sweep of a team that we haven’t done in a long time. For us to really, really accomplish that is the next step. To make the playoffs you have to win the division. That’s the first thing on our mind every year. We’re not going to do it this year, obviously, but it’s a good step to beat the guys we’re playing against week in and week out.