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Inside the basement with Kevin Stefanski, who earned a newfound respect for Browns fans

Stefanski was full of nervous energy as he paced in his basement and watched the Browns build their first playoff win since 1994

Kevin Stefanski couldn't sit down.

As he watched his team play its first playoff game in 18 seasons, Stefanski, Cleveland's head coach, was doing his best effort to project his best trait: being calm. He was over 100 miles away from Heinz Field and in the comforts — although it felt more like torture — of his own basement. And he was doing his best to focus as he would if he were on the sidelines himself.

Stefanski couldn't be there after he returned a positive COVID-19 test Tuesday. He coached the Browns through virtual meetings all week, but he couldn't contact anyone with the team from 90 minutes to kickoff until the end of the game.

So he turned his phone off, turned the TV on and paced in his home — just like any other Browns fan.

"I don't plan on doing that again," Stefanski said with a slight smile Monday. He could say it with a hint of happiness after the Browns defeated the Steelers, 48-37, to advance to the AFC Divisional Round and extend Stefanski's first season with the Browns at least one more week.

"It's a strange feeling. I just turned into a fan of the team and pumped for our guys like crazy. It's a very unique feeling not to be there with them. There was a ton of nervous energy that doesn't usually exist on a sideline for whatever reason, but it existed for me last night."

The Browns missed Stefanski, too. Stefanski made sure to turn his phone on as soon as the game ended, which proved to be a wise move. Shortly after he powered it back up, wide receiver Jarvis Landry was already trying to reach him with a FaceTime call. 

After Landry, pass game coordinator and wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea gave Stefanski a call, too. This one was so that he could speak with coaches and players, who attempted to chat with their coach but were occasionally drowned out among the noises of the celebration inside the locker room. 

Music was blaring. Players were yelling in excitement. But everyone still wanted to share the moment with their head coach.

"It was loud so we couldn't hear what he was saying," running back Nick Chubb said. "We all saw him and we all waved to him."

Stefanski will have plenty of time to address his team and offer praise this week. For now, he's just happy that his team got the job done.

They did it in historical fashion, too: The Browns' five touchdowns in the first half were the most by an NFL team in the playoffs since 1992, and their 28 points in the first quarter were the most by any team in NFL postseason history.

Stefanski had a bit of a late jump to see it himself, though.

At some point before kickoff, Stefanski said he needed to pause his TV for 45 seconds. He forgot to advance back to live action before the game started, and he didn't realize it until he heard his family, isolated away from him upstairs due to his positive COVID-19 test, stomping on the floor and filling the house with cheer.

That happened, of course, because the Browns defense scooped a Steelers' botched snap in the end zone on the first play from scrimmage. All it took was one snap for the Browns to build a 6-0 lead.

And Stefanski didn't see it in real time.

"My kids were going crazy upstairs," he said. "I had an inkling something good was going to happen on that first play."

The stomping and cheers didn't stop all night. Cleveland had arguably its best game of the season under the biggest spotlight, and that's a massive testament to each coach and player who stepped up in a week where the Browns only practiced once due to COVID-19 precautionary procedures. The preparation was still precise, and the execution was nearly flawless.

Credit belongs to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who took over offensive play-calling duties in place of Stefanski and orchestrated a near-perfect game. Kudos should also be shared to special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who served as acting head coach and still rallied the Browns to a win. 

And it's a major testament to Stefanski, who was confident that players and coaches wouldn't be affected by his absence. He always believed they had what it took to prepare and win. 

He was right.

"It was a great team effort," Stefanski said, with extra emphasis on the "great."

"You saw guys stepping up and making plays and people in different roles, doing a great job. I'm so very, very proud of the effort. I thought they played with a ton of physicality and enthusiasm, which was readily apparent to me."

Those observations were evident for anyone watching the game from the same perspective as Stefanski — nervous and endlessly pacing around the room.

But it all paid off. The Browns have survived and advanced, and Stefanski, who said he is targeting a Thursday return to full-time coaching duties, couldn't have been more proud to be their coach. 

"I trust my team," he said. " I trust my guys. I trust the players. I trust the coaches. The goal was to find a win any which way we had to.

"That's what our guys did. They continued to fight."

Check out photos of the Browns against the Pittsburgh Steelers