The Browns Are The Closest Thing To A Feel-Good Story That The NFL Has
5:39 PM EST on January 3, 2021
Betting on football is an idiot's game. Betting on football in the time of COVID is for people who idiots call idiots. And betting on the Cleveland Browns with as much COVID as they have hosted this week is clinically and galactically insane.
So yay insanity.
To be pedantic about it, they didn't cover the 10-point spread when they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, 24-22. But they did win, so if you bet the money line, you did good. You kicked COVID's ass like they did.
Only nobody is that interested in how you won. The Browns, on the other hand, reached the postseason for the first time in 18 years and the second time in their actual reality-based history despite being down a half-dozen players and three assistant coaches to the virus. They beat their closest thing to a hated archrival for the right to play them again next week. They overcame a rich history of comprehensive awfulness by doing the hardest thing in the sport—taking a quarterback in Baker Mayfield who seemingly wanted to be a nitwit and supervising his conversion to a force for institutional good.
And even at that, they needed a failed two-point conversion by the Steelers with 1:23 to play to avoid another year of being the Browns. It is probably safe at this point to say that this is the greatest game in Browns history because the only other game the Browns have had to be proud of since resuming their existence is the game that secured their other playoff spot. They scored two touchdowns in the last seven minutes to beat Atlanta on the last day of the 2002 regular season and win the right to blow their own 12-point lead in the last 3:06 of their only other playoff game, which was also against Pittsburgh.
As a team trapped mostly by miserable annual narratives, this moment needs preservation. Their last four years alone were among the game's filthiest messes—finishing 1-15, 0-16, hiring Gregg Williams to replace Hue Jackson, and hiring Freddie Kitchens after that. Before that, they were just a featureless team that lost seven of every ten games for 17 years, so they actually went from being the worst team in football to being WAY the worst team in football. Having been fooled by the Browns hype train in 2019, most football punditroids thought new coach Kevin Stefanski was hired initially as a hazmat exercise.
And now? Here we are, a feel-cuddly story for everyone, or as close as the NFL can manage. Mayfield has been fixed, running back Nick Chubb hasn't being ruined, a team with defensive talent finally showed it, and even owner Jimmy Haslam has avoided shaming himself. Even fans of diversity could find a reason for joy, in that Stefanski's chief of staff Callie Brownson is now 2-0 filling in for a position coach, having coached the receivers Sunday five weeks after coaching the tight ends in the Browns' win over Philadelphia. They couldn't have done it without her, and you social troglodytes can't prove otherwise.
Best of all, now they get the Steelers again. They get their rivalry back, which may not seem like much to a layperson but is genuinely the only thing Browns fans have, and that just barely. Pittsburgh has 35 of the 44 games the teams have played, and even with Mason Rudolph nearly beat them again. The Steelers have been this team's sole bete noire for all 22 years of their lives—not even Baltimore, the team the Browns used to be, matters as much.
So there's that. They may still joust with COVID this coming week because one of the many human things the virus doesn't care about is narrative, but the Browns just ducked the virus and are finally playing with the casino's money for a change. And for a week, at least.