Andrew Berry always believed the Browns would be in this spot.
This was his expectation for his first season as the team's GM and EVP of Football Operations. He wanted to make it to the playoffs, yes, but he wanted to dig deeper than just one game. He believed the staff he and head coach Kevin Stefanski assembled had immediate potential in the AFC. The Browns had nothing to wait for.
Now, the Browns are two days from their first appearance in the AFC Divisional Round since 1994. Reaching the second round of the playoffs is even further assurance for many that all of the goals the Browns arranged for this season have been met.
Winning season? Check.
Consistent, stable performance at the quarterback position? Check.
Playoff win? Check.
But Berry's list still has boxes left unchecked.
"Obviously, we are very excited as an organization to be preparing for the divisional round against the Chiefs," Berry said. "With that being said, that is not our destination and that is not our final goal."
The final goal is winning the Super Bowl. Cleveland is three wins away from it, and Berry ensured Friday in a call with local reporters the Browns aren't ready to look back at this season — and what it might mean for the future — as long as the Lombardi trophy is still on the table.
It is. Berry expected it to be there when the Browns reached the middle of January, and after back-to-back wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers to end the longest playoff drought in NFL history, his team proved him right.
"We had high expectations for ourselves coming into the year," Berry said. "We thought that we had the right individuals within our organization where we could have success this year, but it always has to come together. You have to come together as a team. That is the case year over year, regardless of how players carry over. We had high expectations internally, but we also realized that we really had to do the work and stay focused on a week-to-week basis, and if that part of the process could be taken care of, we thought that the results would come."
They have, and they've come in several different ways.
First, the coaching staff. Not only has Stefanski and his talented crew of coordinators and assistants navigated the Browns to their best season in the 21 years since the franchise was brought back to Cleveland, but they've also battled adversity in their biggest moments.
No week was more pivotal for the coaching staff then last week. Stefanski learned Tuesday he could not be on the sidelines to coach Sunday due to a positive COVID-19 test. Offensive line coaches Bill Callahan and Scott Peters were out, too, as well as defensive backs coach Jeff Howard and tight ends coach Drew Petzing.
So special teams coordinator Mike Priefer assumed Stefanski's head coaching roles and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt led the offensive play-calling duties. The Browns feasted early on the Steelers for the first 28-0 first-quarter lead ever in an NFL playoff game and stunned the league with a win.
The performance spoke volumes for the cohesion of the coaching staff and proved that the foundation set when Stefanski and Berry were hired a year ago is strong.
"I think a big part of it is just communication and transparency," Berry said. "That is something that we were hyper-focused on and needed to continue to be hyper-focused on once we went into this virtual world, just because it required a lot more, at least early on, deliberate planning than walking in and out of each other's offices. I also think it makes a huge difference when everybody likes working together, right? You like the people that you are in the office with. I think both of those things served a really nice foundation for us."
Those traits trickled down to the players. Injuries and COVID-19-related transactions twisted the depth chart at several positions all season, but backup players were always ready to carry the load.
Last week, Michael Dunn and Blake Hance, two offensive linemen with almost no in-game experience in the NFL, filled in for Joel Bitonio at left guard and ensured quarterback Baker Mayfield wouldn't get sacked once. Cornerback M.J. Stewart Jr., a player acquired in training camp, was primarily used in a backup role in the regular season. Now, after an interception in the playoff game last week, he is the only Browns defensive player with three interceptions this season.
Every team endures some level of adversity in their trip to the playoffs, but the Browns' list of challenges might be the lengthiest. The players have never lost confidence, though.
They didn't want to wait, either.
"This group has dealt with a ton of adversity and challenges over the course of the year," Berry said, "and none perhaps greater than what we have experienced the past two or three weeks."
All of the work has led to a stage many people didn't believe the Browns could reach. They doubted whether a first-year GM and first-year head coach could lead a team through a pandemic-riddled season. They doubted whether the Browns, even with improvement from last season, could be among the best teams in the NFL.
"We talked about having a smart, tough, accountable team," he said. "We have talked about being aligned. We have talked about working collaboratively. We have talked about being resilient through adversity. I personally end up having an enormous sense of pride because you can pick multiple points throughout the year where all of those characteristics have come to fruition and allowed us to have success."
But as Berry continued to reflect on all that has gone well this season, he continued to reiterate one thing.
The work isn't finished. His meeting with reporters Friday was merely a mid-season presser, and he didn't want to discuss what lied ahead in the offseason because the Browns aren't there yet.
He's had plans for a football game this weekend since January, and he has more plans ready for this season, too.
"We still have a little bit of meat on the bone," he said. "This group is always hungry. That is really the mentality that has really trickled down from our coaching staff. The guys have adopted it, and they have eaten it up."
Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their AFC divisional round matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs