In a game few gave the Browns a chance to win, Baker Mayfield & Co. battled back from a 19-3 halftime deficit to make it a contest against the Chiefs, pulling within five in the fourth quarter after Patrick Mahomes exited the contest, going into concussion protocol.
As with any season-ending game that doesn't end in the raising of a championship trophy, it stings in Cleveland right now -- especially after flubbing a chance to take a late lead. But after years of wallowing in the septic tank as a dysfunctional team with no hope, at least it's clear this Browns club has a bright future.
"It sucks to be quite honest with you guys," Mayfield said after the loss, via the team's official transcript. "It sucks because so many people have sacrificed so much during this process and this very strange season and overcome adversity. So many people have stepped up -- families of players and families of staff -- and everybody sacrificed so much for us to be able to do this. It is just unfortunate for us to come up short. It sucks because we believed in it.
"That is why we are here, but trying to find the positive out of it, we are setting a new standard here. Everybody is saying in the locker room and continue to tell guys that we are going to be back. It sucks when you come up short, but you get that taste of it and realize you learned lessons. For now, it is definitely going to sting. ... Looking at everybody from our side of the ball, we gave it our all. We just came up short."
The new standard is set by Kevin Stefanski, a favorite to win the Coach of the Year award, showing what it can mean to finally find stability at the top after years of cycling through coaches in Cleveland.
The Browns' 12 wins, including playoffs, were the most for the club in a season since 1994 when Bill Belichick was the coach.
The experience of a winning season, a playoff run, and the collective belief that the future is bright is invaluable for a young team still learning how to win consistently.
"I think it will be extremely valuable for our guys to look at each play matters, you have to be extremely locked in and take care of business and obviously, the atmosphere was unbelievable today," Mayfield said. "Those are valuable learning experiences that we have to truly take in and grow from."
With Mayfield under center, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt forming a dynamite backfield duo, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham (assuming he returns healthy) at receiver, and, most importantly, one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, the Browns have the offensive firepower to remain contenders, and perennially make noise in the AFC North. On defense, there are pieces, like Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward. Adding a few more players on D would make the Browns a complete team worthy of a deep postseason run.
Underscoring it all is that new standard set for Cleveland.
"Obviously, each year there is turnover inside the locker room, which is unfortunate because we had an extremely special group here," Mayfield said. "Like I said, I told some of the guys that know for sure going to be back that we will be back. As I have said and restated throughout as the season has gone on, there is a new standard here and that is to be expected. This is going to leave a bad taste in our guys' mouth for extra motivation through the offseason, but yeah, we have come a long way since I first got here. We are not done yet, and that is the best part. Obviously, it hurts to have to wait until next September to have to play, but it is what it is."
The building blocks are there in Cleveland.
The Browns took their first big step getting to the playoffs and winning a game. Next year, the expectations rise.