As Browns players sat down for their final postgame interviews of the season, they expressed all the expected emotions normally felt from a locker room after a season-ending loss.
They looked disappointed. They looked defeated. They looked regretful. All of those feelings were appropriate after the Browns' 22-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, but they didn't paint the big picture of how Cleveland really felt about its season coming to an end in the AFC Divisional Playoff Round.
"It was frustrating, but that is the way these games work," QB Baker Mayfield said. "It sucks when you come up short, but you get that taste of it and realize you learned lessons. For now, it's definitely going to sting.
"We had an extremely special group here. We will be back."
The Browns might not have advanced to the AFC Championship game next week, but they provided plenty of evidence Sunday they can be in the race next season and beyond. Despite the Browns building their best season since 1994 — the last time they were in the second round of the playoffs — not many people gave them a chance to topple the Chiefs, the reigning Super Bowl champs and top-seeded team in the AFC.
Yet they were just one score away from shocking the league with 11 minutes left.
The Browns only surrendered two touchdowns to arguably the best offense in the NFL. The Chiefs lifted four players on that side of the ball to Pro Bowl honors in 2020, and even though the leader of the group, Patrick Mahomes, exited the game for good in the third quarter with a concussion, the Chiefs were still packed with offensive talent. The Browns made sure the score was always close.
Offensively, Cleveland made in-game adjustments and came alive late against a respectable Chiefs defense that featured three Pro Bowlers. Two second-half touchdowns — one to wide receiver Jarvis Landry, and another from running back Kareem Hunt — kept the Browns just one big play away from taking the lead.
"We were just trying to take it one play at a time," guard Joel Bitonio said. "We were taking it one play at a time and trying to give ourselves a shot."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Kansas City Chiefs
When the Browns did make mistakes, they came at costly times.
Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski didn't fault wide receiver Rashard Higgins for his diving effort to score a touchdown after catching a pass from Mayfield and attempting to push the ball through the plane for a 26-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Higgins, however, took a hit from safety Daniel Sorensen just before the ball crossed the white goal-line paint.
The blow jarred the ball loose. Then, it rolled into the end zone and out of bounds. Touchback.
The Browns weren't going to have a shot to turn Higgins' big catch into six points, which would've cut the score to 16-10 and potentially swung the final result in the Browns' favor. Instead, the Chiefs got the ball back, and the possession ended with nothing for Cleveland.
Stefanski, though, wasn't upset that Higgins gave a full effort to move the ball into the end zone.
"Rashard Higgins is a warrior," he 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."
Other mistakes proved costly, too.
Mayfield threw an interception on the first play of the second half to give the ball back to the Chiefs and end a drive that could've led to points. Kansas City didn't score on its next drive, but the Browns needed to possess the ball as long as they could on each of their possessions.
After the Browns secured an interception from Chiefs backup quarterback Chad Henne in the fourth quarter, when the deficit was only five points, the offense failed to move into Chiefs territory and faced fourth-and-9 with 4:19 left. They had no choice but to punt or risk giving the Chiefs favorable field position.
They punted, and they never got the ball back.
"We had our opportunity there late in that ball game, and we did not do it," Stefanski said. "We are going to share in this defeat like we share in those victories, and it hurts."
But despite the loss, despite the mistakes and despite the disappointment, the Browns have a lengthy list of reasons to be proud of themselves.
They'll be remembered as a playoff football team, which Cleveland hasn't had since 2002.
They'll be remembered as a team that beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, whom the Browns had only beaten five times since 2003. This season, they beat them twice, and both wins — the first to make the playoffs, the second to win in the playoffs — will be remembered as the two games that wrecked the 18-year barrier that separated Cleveland from the postseason.
They'll be remembered as a team with a consistent quarterback. Mayfield excelled at protecting the football — he ended the season with only nine interceptions — and passed Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham for the most passing touchdowns by a Browns player in their first three years.
"I'm proud of everything that we accomplished," Landry said. "I'm just proud of the effort and the way that the guys played and continued to fight, being down and continuing and just trying to fight. We created a high standard."
The Browns fulfilled nearly all of their 2020 expectations despite a season full of unexpected twists and turns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Stefanski, who was named head coach just over a year ago, is a Coach of the Year candidate for making the Browns a winner and bringing the team together when most of its communication came through video screens.
Injuries, positive COVID-19 tests and navigating through a season primarily confined to virtual settings didn't stop the Browns from being great. In arguably the most unusual season the NFL has ever had, Cleveland still found a way to become one of the best teams in the league.
"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," Mayfield said. "It's 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."
The Browns expect that momentum to carry over to next season. The core leaders of top talent are slated to return, and the front office is ready to go to work to make one of the best rosters in franchise history even better.
So while an unforgettable season came to an end Sunday, the Browns can't help but feel optimistic when they look ahead and see what's next.
They'll be back, and they know it.
"We're not done yet," Mayfield said, "and that's the best part."