EAST RUTHERFORD: In this file photo taken on December 26, 2020 Head coach Kevin Stefanski of the Cleveland Browns looks on in the third quarter against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. — AFP

LOS ANGELES: The Cleveland Browns will be bidding to overcome COVID-19 and the Pittsburgh Steelers today as they return to the NFL playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades. For so long a punchline, the Browns are back in the playoffs after a transformation in fortunes that saw them claim a wild card spot from the AFC North with an 11-5 regular-season record.

It was the Browns first winning season since 2007, and came four years after the team posted just one victory in two seasons in 2015-2016, a miserable run that included an 0-16 campaign four years ago. But the Browns’ stay in the post-season could be brief. The team’s preparations for today’s daunting trip to Pittsburgh have been engulfed by a COVID-19 outbreak that has wiped out practice since Tuesday.

The team were finally given the all-clear to return to training on Friday afternoon, but will nevertheless be missing head coach Kevin Stefanski from the sidelines at Heinz Field today. Stefanski is one of more than a dozen Browns players and coaches whose involvement this week has been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Stefanski tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday and has been in isolation since. His position on the sideline will be taken by special teams coach Mike Priefer.


COVID crisis

“I’m going to try to be an extension of Kevin,” Priefer said. “I’m going to try to do exactly what Kevin would want in those situations.” Stefanski, meanwhile, had planned to address the team yesterday before handing off head coaching duties to Priefer.

“Once it’s game time, coach Priefer will be serving that role,” Stefanski said. “I have a ton of faith in him. The guys know the message. They don’t need a Zoom call from me to tell them what to do.” Yet as of Friday, eight Browns players — including guard Joel Bitonio, tight end Harrison Bryant and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge — remained on the COVID-19 reserve list with uncertainty over their availability.

The Browns clinched their playoff berth last Sunday with a 24-22 defeat of the Steelers, who rested veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and several starters, having already locked up the divisional title. Roethlisberger, meanwhile, is preparing for today’s game knowing that it may well be his last. At 38, Roethlisberger is one of several veteran quarterbacks in this year’s playoffs nearing the end of their respective careers, a list that includes Tom Brady (43), Drew Brees (41) and Philip Rivers (39).


‘The old guys’

“All the old guys. It’s cool. It’s fun to be a part of it with them. I’m hoping we’re not one and done so I can be the last one standing,” he said. “I think every player should approach this game like it could be their last playoff ever. I know I am.”

Elsewhere today, the Baltimore Ravens look for revenge when they travel to the Tennessee Titans. Last season, the Ravens entered the playoffs as the top seeds in the AFC but were dumped out at the first hurdle in a 28-12 upset by the Titans.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, however, insists that his team will not use last year’s shocker as motivation. “We’re just focused on the game,” Harbaugh said. “Previous games have little bearing.” Those words were echoed by quarterback Lamar Jackson. “It’s not about them; it’s about us,” Jackson said. “It really doesn’t matter who we play.”

Today’s other game sees the Chicago Bears travel to New Orleans to face the Saints in the NFC. Like the Steelers’ Roethlisberger, Saints quarterback Brees knows that he could be one defeat from retirement.

Brees, who turns 42 next week, was reluctant to be drawn on his career beyond this season when talking to reporters. “All I know is this,” Brees said. “I didn’t come back to play this season for myself. I came back for my team. I came back for the city, I came back for the organization. That’s why I’m here.”  — AFP