The most memorable Browns season in a generation came to an end Sunday in Kansas City.
The Browns, playing in their first AFC Divisional Round game since 1994, rallied back from a 16-point halftime deficit to make it a one-score game late in the fourth quarter, but that was as far as they'd get Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs weathered an injury to All-Pro QB Patrick Mahomes and hung on just long enough against the upset-minded Browns, who fell 22-17 to end their unforgettable 2020 season.
"I am extremely disappointed that we were not able to get the job done today," said Kevin Stefanski, who led the Browns to 12 wins in his first season as head coach.
"We are going to share in this defeat like we share in those victories, and it hurts. There is a finality to this one when you do not get it done in the playoffs, and that really hurts. I appreciate how our guys battled. They fought like they do every single week, and it just was not enough today."
The Browns, who posted their most wins in a season since 1994, couldn't take advantage of a Karl Joseph interception with 8 minutes to play and punted the ball away with 4:19 to play. They never got it back.
The Chiefs converted the two first downs they needed, including a game-sealing catch by Tyreek Hill on fourth-and-inches with 1:14 to play, to finally end the hopes of a Browns team that never quit no matter how much adversity they faced throughout the 2020 season.
"So many people have sacrificed so much during this process and this very strange season and overcome adversity," QB Baker Mayfield said. "So many people have stepped up – families of players and families of staff – and everybody sacrificed so much for us to be able to do this. It is just unfortunate for us to come up short.
"It sucks because we believed in it. That is why we are here, but trying to find the positive out of it, we are setting a new standard here."
Mayfield led the Browns back in the second half on two touchdown drives and finished 23-of-37 for 204 yards, a touchdown and an interception — his first since Week 14. The third-year quarterback, who saw two left tackles go down to injury, made a number of big throws throughout a game in which the Browns needed to overcome a number of unsavory down-and-distances and convert a combined nine third and fourth downs.
"We had three drives for three points [in the first half], a bunch of drops, penalties, bad play calls and all of it. It just was not good enough," Stefanski said. "You can't come in here and ultimately score 17 points and get a win versus this team. That first half, I do not think that was a clean operation like we ask for."
Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combined for 101 yards on the ground. Hunt's touchdown run with 11:07 remaining in the fourth quarter brought the Browns within 5, the smallest deficit they'd seen since early in the second quarter.
Rashard Higgins led the Browns with five catches for 88 yards and came inches away from a touchdown in the second quarter but ultimately fumbled the ball out of the end zone. TE David Njoku made a handful of big catches and finished with 59 yards.
For just the first time since Week 6 and just the third time all season, the Browns never held a lead.
"We just could not get the ball one more time," said WR Jarvis Landry, who hauled in the Browns' first touchdown of the game in Sunday's third quarter. "I am proud of this group. I am proud of this team. I am proud of everything that we accomplished.
Obviously, this is a tough moment because you have come through so much in the way and the passion that we did, you want to think that there are a lot of positives, but you never want to lose a game. Our ultimate goal was to win the Super Bowl, and we did not do that."
Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, was his usual self in the first half, leading the Chiefs to two touchdowns and two field goals on their four early possessions, but was lost in the third quarter with a concussion. He finished 21-of-30 for 255 yards, a TD run in the first quarter and a second-quarter touchdown pass to TE Travis Kelce.
Kelce (eight receptions, 109 yards) and Hill (eight receptions, 110 yards) paced a Chiefs offense that didn't punt the entire game.
"We knew that we were going to have to weather the storm and we knew it was going to be close," Stefanski said. "In that close moment, we had to go take it, and we did not get it done."
The Browns came away unscathed from a Mayfield interception to start the half after Chiefs K Harrison Butker missed a short field goal attempt. Then, they established their best drive of the game, marching 77 yards on eight plays with a mix of big runs and big passes, the last of which going to Landry for a 4-yard touchdown.
Kansas City lost Mahomes on the ensuing drive when the quarterback attempted a run on third-and-1 near midfield. He was relieved by veteran Çhad Henne, who entered Sunday with no on-field playoff experience. The Chiefs tacked on a field goal to stretch their lead to 22-10 with 4:24 left in the third quarter.
The Browns grabbed a hold of the momentum with their longest possession of the season, which featured a number of third-down conversions and the biggest fourth-down conversion of the year. Mayfield's fourth-down throw to a diving Austin Hooper kept the possession alive, and Hunt closed it out with a 3-yard touchdown run. The 18-play, 75-yard drive took a whopping 8:17 off the clock and brought the Browns within a single score, 22-17, with 11:07 to play.
"The offense in general, I do not think we put them in enough good spots, but (Mayfield) was ready to go help us win that game," Stefanski said. "That is what he has done all season long steering this ship, being out in front and leading this group. I am proud of him. Ultimately, we know that we did not get the job done so there is a huge amount of disappointment in that, but I appreciate how he battles."
On their heels as the Chiefs entered field goal range midway through the fourth quarter, the Browns got the turnover they desperately needed. Joseph, who scored a defensive touchdown in the Wild Card round, intercepted Henne in the end zone to set up the Browns at their own 20-yard line with 8 minutes to play.
The Browns, though, couldn't do much with the next possession. They converted one first down on a Mayfield fourth-down keeper and were forced to punt when they faced a fourth-and-9 from their own 32-yard line.
"When you get the ball with momentum starting to swing our way, we were confident that we were going to go out there [and score]," Mayfield said. :They decided to bring a couple of pressures and made the plays, and we did not.
"By the way the game was going, we believed in the way we handled that situation, giving the ball to them and trusting our defense the way they were playing at the time to get to stop."
The Browns put the Chiefs in a bind when Myles Garrett dropped Henne for a big loss with a sack, setting up third-and-14 from their own 41-yard line. Henne, though, got almost all of it back on a third-down scramble to set up fourth-and-inches. After a long time at the line of scrimmage, Henne took the snap out of the shotgun and tossed a short pass to Hill for the game-sealing first down.
"They have been very aggressive in a lot of those moments so that did not surprise me," Stefanski said. "Us getting a stop there, we would be set up so there is risk involved in their decision, but they trusted their guys and they made a play."
With a chance to make it a one-possession game heading into halftime, the Browns fumbled away a big opportunity.
Trailing 16-3 after the Chiefs scored on each of their first three possessions, the Browns were rolling down the field with less than 2 minutes left in the half. Stationed near midfield, Cleveland entered field goal range after Mayfield found Higgins for a 23-yard gain.
The quarterback went right back to Higgins on the next play, who caught a pass near the 5-yard line, turned and lunged toward the end zone. Chiefs LB Dan Sorenson launched himself into Higgins, who fumbled the ball and saw it squirt into the end zone and out of bounds for a costly touchback.
The Chiefs took over possession, drove down the field and padded their lead with a field goal to take a 19-3 advantage into halftime.
"Let me be very, very clear: Rashard Higgins is a warrior," Stefanski said. "He has battled all season long. He has done everything that I have asked him to do from the moment we get together in July. I am never going to doubt that kid's effort. He is a team player all the way. An unfortunate play, and he understands the rule and I understand the rule. We will continue to coach our guys, but Rashard Higgins, I am proud to coach him because he gives you everything he has."
The same can be said for the rest of the team, which battled through a season like no other to deliver results Browns fans have waited so long to see. This was the end for the 2020 Browns but just the beginning for a "new standard" that was established.
"Everybody is saying in the locker room and I'm continuing to tell guys that we are going to be back," Mayfield said. "It sucks when you come up short, but you get that taste of it and realize you learned lessons.
"For now, it is definitely going to sting."