The Browns are on to the biggest beast of the AFC.
Sunday. 3:05 p.m. The AFC Divisional Playoffs are the stage. The Kansas City Chiefs are the opponent, and they're as tough as it gets.
The 48-37 Wild Card win Sunday night in Pittsburgh will be worth celebrating all week — actually, as the first playoff win since 1994 (and first win in Pittsburgh since 2005), it'll be worth celebrating for years.
But the Browns will shift their focus quickly to the next game on the schedule. That's what any team should do in the playoffs, and the Chiefs, who followed up their Super Bowl win last season with a 14-2 record and secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC, will require as much game prep as possible.
"We have been the underdogs since the beginning of the season," defensive end Myles Garrett said. "Nobody thought that we would have a winning record. Nobody thought that we were going to get to the playoffs. Nobody thought that we were going to do anything in the playoffs. We just have to keep on proving people wrong."
Garrett is right — the Browns were underdogs heading into Pittsburgh after a week full of unfortunate news in Berea. Head coach Kevin Stefanski wasn't able to coach the Browns on Sunday after he returned a positive COVID-19 test result, and Cleveland needed to find a way to win without Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio, top cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson and versatile wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge. Defensive end Olivier Vernon, who recorded nine sacks this season, was also placed on Injured Reserve at the beginning of the week.
Add in the absences of offensive line coaches Bill Callahan and Scott Peters, defensive backs coach Jeff Howard and tight ends coach Drew Petzing — and how the Browns practiced just once all week — and it's not hard to see why the odds were stacked against Cleveland on Sunday.
"This was a difficult week and a playoff week," special teams coordinator and acting head coach Mike Priefer said, "but they never batted an eye."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Pittsburgh Steelers
No matter who is able to return to the team this week, the odds will be stacked against Cleveland again.
The Browns will face the Chiefs for the first time since 2018, when quarterback Patrick Mahomes built one of the greatest seasons ever by an NFL quarterback. He finished that season with 50 touchdowns, five short of Peyton Manning's single-season record set in 2013, and threw three of them against the Browns, who lost 37-21.
Mahomes has only gotten better two seasons later. He threw for 4,740 yards, 38 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 2020 and led the NFL with 316 passing yards per game. He's been the top leader behind a Chiefs offense that contains one of the top receivers in Tyreek Hill and arguably the best tight end in football in Travis Kelce. On defense, they own three 2021 Pro Bowlers in defensive end Frank Clark, defensive tackle Chris Jones and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
It's a gauntlet of a roster, the only one in the AFC that received the benefit of a first-round playoff bye. But for the Browns, who are underdogs yet again, it's just more fuel for the fire to stack more success onto an unforgettable season.
"We are here for a reason," Mayfield said. "There is a new standard, and we are going to try and keep it that way."
It remains to be seen whether Stefanski will be able to return to the sidelines next week. The same can be said about the other players and coaches who missed being there for Sunday's thrilling win. The Browns have taken things one week at a time all season, and that approach paid off in historical ways Sunday.
But no matter the personnel on either side of the field, the Browns have proven they can rise to any challenge. No other NFL team has faced the obstacles the Browns overcame Sunday, but now there's a new challenge in front of them.
Take down the reigning Super Bowl champs.
"It's just the stepping stone to where we eventually want to go," Mayfield said. "Nobody here is satisfied yet."