The architects behind Cleveland's stunning playoff win have ties to Green Bay
The NFL's "Super Wild Card Weekend" ended with a bang Sunday, when the Cleveland Brown stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC playoffs, 48-37.
Making the upset all the more memorable were the circumstances facing Cleveland, which was missing players and coaches because of COVID-19 protocols. That included head coach Kevin Stefanski, an NFL coach of the year candidate who wasn't allowed to direct his team remotely.
With Stefanski out, special-teams coach Mike Priefer took over the reins as head coach, and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt took over play-calling responsibilities.
Van Pelt served as a Green Bay Packers assistant coach from 2012-17, first as running backs coach and then as quarterbacks coach starting in 2014. Van Pelt, who took the same position with the Cincinnati Bengals after that, was the subject of some consternation after Aaron Rodgers expressed his frustration when Van Pelt wasn't retained.
“Well, my quarterback coach didn’t get retained," Rodgers said in an interview with ESPN. “I thought that was an interesting change, really without consulting me. There’s a close connection between quarterback and quarterback coach, and that was an interesting decision."
Priefer, meanwhile, also has ties to Green Bay. Born in Ohio, Priefer moved with his family to the Green Bay area in high school and graduated from Abbot Pennings High School, an all-boys Catholic school in De Pere that merged with Notre Dame Academy in 1990. Priefer played football at the school while his father, Chuck, served as the Packers special teams coach under head coach Forrest Gregg from 1984-85.
Abbot Pennings also counts among its alumni John Schneider, the general manager of the Seattle Seahawks and former Packers director of football operations.
The younger Priefer served as special-teams coordinator for the NFC North rival Minnesota Vikings from 2011-18, even becoming interim head coach in 2016. He joined the Browns in 2019 as special teams coordinator.
The victory over Pittsburgh was Cleveland's first in the playoffs since 1994 and was its first playoff game at since 2002. The victory meant a very happy Joe Thomas, the former University of Wisconsin standout and future NFL Hall of Famer who never played in the playoffs with the Browns during his 11-year NFL career.
Cleveland will face top-seeded Kansas City on Sunday afternoon.