Denzel Ward never thought he'd watch the two biggest wins of his Browns career from his couch.
Ward, who missed the last two games due to contracting COVID-19, was gutted as he turned on the TV to watch the Browns in back-to-back weeks from home. He was one of several Browns players who spent time on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, and he had no choice but to spend time away from the team as it embarked on meeting its regular season goal of making the playoffs.
Ward's shutdown work as a cornerback and the leader of the secondary helped put them in position, but when the "win or go home" situations finally hit the Browns, Ward couldn't contribute.
"It's been tough, but it's been great seeing my teammates go out there and get the job done," he said. "I wear a mask often. You just can't take your guard down at any second. You never know when it's around."
The Browns forced 5 turnovers, tied for their most in a game this season and their most in a playoff game since 1968.
Now, Ward, who recorded a career-best 18 passes defensed and snagged two interceptions and a forced fumble, is back and ready to give the Browns defense a massive boost before it faces arguably its biggest challenge of the season in the AFC Divisional Playoff Round.
The Kansas City Chiefs have made a habit of gashing defenses since quarterback Patrick Mahomes took over the offense in 2018. He won MVP that season and then led the Chiefs to a Super Bowl victory in 2019. He's shown no signs of slowing down, but the return of Ward to the Browns defense should provide Mahomes, who threw 38 touchdowns and six interceptions in the regular season, one more obstacle to plan around.
"He is obviously an exceptional talent," Ward said. "He has the arm strength. He can make every throw on the field. He is smart. He is everything you want in a quarterback."
Ward's primary focus, however, will be on wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who might be the fastest player in the NFL. He's used his speed to burn defensive backs all season and build one of his best seasons as a pro — he ended the regular season with 1,276 receiving yards and a career-best 15 touchdowns.
Ward has lined up against Hill before. The Chiefs defeated the Browns 37-21 in 2018, but Hill was held to four receptions and 69 yards. Ward, a rookie at the time, lent a heavy hand in those efforts, and now he'll be asked to carry an even larger role in stopping an even more explosive version of Hill.
"They're finding ways to get him the ball, whether it is running a route or handing it off to him in the backfield," Ward said. "He is able to make plays once he gets the ball in his hands. It's up to us to try to eliminate those explosive plays from him and the rest of their offense."
During his absence, Ward worked to ensure his body still would be in shape to compete at the same level he has all season. He said he lost his ability to taste and smell and underwent a few bed-ridden days full of body aches and chills, but when he was able to condition himself, he did it.
"It wasn't great," he said. "I'm glad I got over it and hoping everybody still continues to stay safe and wears a mask and tries to beat it. I started feeling better after I started getting a lot of fluids in my system and took some medicines to try to get rid of the headaches and stuff like that. After a few days, I was feeling OK."
As Ward recovered, he hoped the Browns could keep their season alive without him. Cleveland did just that, and he's ready to buckle back in and do his part to extend it another week.
He knows just how special the ride has been for Cleveland. After two weeks of itching to be on the field to help make game-changing plays with his team, Ward is more hungry than ever to find success on a grand playoff stage.
"I just commend my teammates, coaches and the entire organization for being able to get the win and move on to the next round," he said. "Everybody's value on the team is needed."