Mike Priefer has been here before, but make no mistake: This is different.
Serving as the special teams coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, Priefer was summoned to take the reins as the team's head coach in 2016 for a Week 13, Thursday Night matchup against the 10-1 Cowboys. Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer needed emergency eye surgery, and Priefer, one of the team's longest-tenured assistants, was the next man up. He found out from Vikings general manager Rick Spielman after the team held a mass together the night before the game.
"He grabbed me right after that meeting and said, 'Oh by the way, you are going to be the head coach tomorrow night. Do you want to do it?'" Priefer recalled Thursday. "I said 'Absolutely.' So I did not have much time to think about it."
The situation Priefer faces as the Browns acting head coach for Sunday's Wild Card playoff matchup with the Steelers carries far bigger stakes, but the surprise factor is non-existent. Priefer has known for months this could be a possibility, that COVID-19 could go all the way up the org chart to head coach Kevin Stefanski, and he'd be the next man up.
That's where Priefer finds the most confidence in his ability to execute the duties he'll have Sunday at Heinz Field. It's not from his experience in Minnesota, though that certainly helps. His confidence comes from the plan, which has been in place for months thanks to Stefanski's meticulous approach to a season he knew would be like no other.
"I was not caught off guard by anything," Priefer said. "The thing that I knew and the thing that I learned the most is that you have to have good people around you, and we do have good people around. We have (offensive coordinator) Alex (Van Pelt) who will do a great job running the offense, (defensive coordinator) Joe will continue to do a great job running the defense and all our coaches will step up and our players will step up as they normally do, as they have done all season long."
Priefer's week hasn't been altered too much as he prepares to serve as a head coach for the second time in a coaching career that dates back to the last time Cleveland won a playoff game (1994). He's added game management meetings to his schedule, and those will run up until the hours leading into Sunday's primetime kickoff. His responsibilities with the special teams won't change, though it's likely assistant Doug Colman will tackle more of the in-game work, considering Priefer will be engaged with the action on the field at all times.
His biggest goal as head coach Sunday? Do what Stefanski would do.
"I am both honored and humbled to have this opportunity, but make no mistake, this is Kevin's team," Priefer said. "He has laid the foundation of a smart, tough, accountable, resilient team, and I will do whatever is asked of me to help the Cleveland Browns get a win on Sunday night. I do love this city, I think you guys know that, and our fans deserve our best effort and that is what we plan on giving them on Sunday.
"Everybody is different, but I am going to try to be an extension of Kevin … I understand situational football, and I am kind of into that mode anyway on game day, so that part will not change but I am going to try to do exactly what Kevin would want to have happen in those situations."
That's how Priefer is handling the days leading up to Sunday's game, too, and that's exactly what the Browns need.
With Tuesday's five positive COVID-19 tests, the Browns have not been in their facility since last Friday. They've yet to practice this week, and it's unclear if they'll be able to Thursday or Friday before traveling to Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Stefanski is remaining engaged with the team up until Sunday's game while Priefer prepares the special teams units like he would any other week while also preparing himself for his expanded role Sunday.
"Kevin has set this whole thing up and he is such a humble guy to begin with and it has never been about him, it has always been about the team, and that is the way I plan on leading on Sunday," Priefer said. "It is not about me. It is not about really any one person. It is about the Cleveland Browns. It is about our team. It is about how we have been built, how we have practiced, met and played all season long. I think we are going to fall back on that foundation and that experience, and I do not think the guys will be unsettled at all."
Priefer was born in Cleveland and grew up a Browns fan. From the moment he became the team's special teams coordinator in 2019, he's repeatedly mentioned how special it is to coach for his hometown team.
Priefer, though, hasn't let his mind drift into that territory. By serving as an extension of Stefanski, Priefer is locked in on one thing, and one thing only.
Go 1-0 this week.
"Is it surreal? I guess," Priefer said. "I have not really thought about that part of it because there is a lot of work to be done, but maybe someday we will look back and think about it that way.
"Right now, it is business as usual, and we have to go get a win."
Check out the best photos from the Browns win over the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday by the Browns photo team