Browns hope to play with pride, lead despite no playoff chance

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CLEVELAND — The moment did not go unnoticed by Joel Bitonio. The Browns All-Pro left guard’s face showed that even more than anything he said.

The Browns saw any hopes of a playoff appearance or winning season dissipate in the icy winds of Saturday afternoon’s 17-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints. The best they can hope for is another 8-9 finish and perhaps spoil the Washington Commanders’ NFC Wild Card hopes on New Year’s Day.

For Bitonio, the oldest Browns player, the pain of that reality was etched into his face as he spoke after the loss. That’s even when he said the thing one would only expect to hear from him when asked if he’s allowed one eye to look at what the next season could be.

“I’m focused on this year,” said Bitonio.

The Browns could always hide behind the potential – no matter how mathematically slim – to make the playoffs as motivation, as long as it was still available to them. Even if the playoffs weren’t something they could realistically achieve, they could also end the season with just their fourth winning season since the franchise’s 1999 revival.

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Amari Cooper (2) runs for a first down during the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022, in Cleveland.  (AP photo/David Richard)

Now, the question of motivation is a real one for them to face. What it becomes, though, is an individual rather than a team-centric issue.

“If you don’t have some kind of edge or chip on your shoulder to just play any Sunday, Saturday, Monday or Thursday, that’s not a good thing,” receiver Amari Cooper said. “This is our livelihood, this is how we support our families. No matter how you look at it, you have to find a reason why you want to go out there and do a great performance, because that’s a privilege.