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Joel Bitonio 'pumped to keep playing,' finally fulfill playoff dream

Bitonio returned to the Browns on Friday after missing their first playoff game due to a positive COVID-19 test

Joel Bitonio could hear the fireworks coming from outside his house even though he was stuck in the basement.

Bitonio chuckled. He knew exactly what the booms were for. He had spent the last four hours watching the Browns deliver a historic beatdown on the Pittsburgh Steelers for their first playoff win in over two decades, but Bitonio, the longest-tenured player on the Browns, couldn't be there.

He had no choice but to watch it by himself from a cozy basement chair in front of a 70-inch TV. 

Sure, he had a comfortable setup, but Bitonio would've much rather been on the TV himself. He had waited seven seasons to play in a playoff game, but a positive COVID-19 test result earlier in the week ruled him out from experiencing the win.

His neighbors, however, weren't going to let Bitonio end the night without a celebration.

"My neighbors all know where I live, and they were going crazy," Bitonio said. "It was cool how I was kind of a part of the celebration in the sense that you don't get to experience that when we're playing games."

For Bitonio, the fireworks were in celebration for much more than the result of the game. 

The win meant Bitonio had another shot to end his own wait, too, after enduring a one-win season in 2016 and a winless season in 2017. Bitonio was finally going to have a chance to play in a playoff game.

That goal is finally going to be met. The Browns activated Bitonio off the Reserve/COVID-19 list Friday, a day before they departed for Kansas City to play the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round, and welcomed one of their biggest leaders back on the field.

Bitonio couldn't be happier.

"I'm ready to get out there and ready to play," he said. "I'm pumped to keep playing, and I'm ready to get after it this weekend."

An appearance in the second round of the playoffs is the perfect way for Bitonio to continue a tremendous season. 

He started all 16 regular season games at left guard for the fourth consecutive season and earned Pro Bowl honors for the third straight year. He's been a consistent, stable force in one of the best offensive lines in football and was ranked by Pro Football Focus as one of the top guards in the NFL for most of the season.

His work led the Browns offense to one of its best seasons since the franchise was brought back to Cleveland in 1999. Running back Nick Chubb was named a Pro Bowler with Bitonio, while Baker Mayfield built his best year at quarterback since his record-breaking rookie season and took advantage of clean pockets all year.

When news trickled in last week that Bitonio was going to miss the Wild Card round, players, coaches and others around the NFL gave an outpouring of support. Bitonio has long been recognized as a leader in Cleveland for his always-positive attitude and Pro Bowl-worthy talents, which he always brought to the field despite enduring minimal team success in his first few years with the Browns.

"That is a hard one to swallow," offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said last week. "I reached out to him early in the week when I found out, just letting him know how much we do appreciate him. We talked about it briefly as an offensive group and told him he is a big part of why we are there. We are definitely going to miss him. It's unfortunate. It's a crazy year."

But the offensive line backed Bitonio up in improbable fashion. Michael Dunn, who was signed off the practice squad late in the regular season, started in his spot and delivered the same clean protection against a Steelers defense that led the NFL in sacks. When Dunn exited the game with an injury in the second half, Blake Hance — who was signed off the Jets practice squad one week earlier and met Mayfield for the first time ever in the locker room before the game — filled in and didn't miss a beat.

The offensive line didn't allow the Steelers to record a single sack, and they did it without their longest-tenured leader.

"It starts from the top with coach (Bill) Callahan, coach (Scott) Peters and (offensive assistant Ryan) Cordell," Bitonio said. "They've all done a good job of making sure those guys are ready to play. I think it's a testament to (center) JC (Tretter) on leading the line out there and really being able to communicate with those guys." 

Because of their efforts, Bitonio will get to play in a playoff game after all. He'll have another shot to give back to a franchise he's stuck with no matter what. It's a shot he didn't know if he'd have again last week, when he sat down and watched the biggest game the Browns have played in his career.

But as he heard the fireworks from his neighbors outside, it truly sunk in. Bitonio was going to have a chance to come back.

On Friday, his last wish was met.

"It means a lot," Bitonio said. "I was proud of everybody, and I'm ready to be out there again this week."

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