The game features two teams active in their respective playoff races - the 9-3 Browns working to hold onto the No. 5 seed in the AFC, while the 5-8 Giants are in an unexpected fight for the NFC East Division crown.
This will also be the first opportunity for defensive end Olivier Vernon, right guard Eric Zeitler and safety Jabrill Peppers to face their former teams since traded prior to the 2019 season. (Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. will unfortunately miss his opportunity to take on the Giants after suffering a season-ending ACL injury in October.)
Throw in that NBC flexed the game to Sunday night and you could not ask for much more.
But on Thursday the game hit a new level with the news that New York offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has tested positive for COVID-19 and will not be calling the offensive plays against the Browns.
Garrett’s replacement? None other than former Cleveland head coach Freddie Kitchens, who is in his first season with the Giants, having returned to his roots as a tight ends coach.
Giants Statement: Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett has tested positive for COVID-19. He will continue to work remotely.— New York Giants (@Giants) December 17, 2020
Tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens will serve as the team’s offensive play caller on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
As most Browns fans will remember, Kitchens joined Hue Jackson’s staff in Cleveland in 2018 as a running backs coach before being promoted to offensive coordinator after Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired eight games into the season.
Kitchens and quarterback Baker Mayfield appeared to click as the Browns went 5-3 in the second half of the season with Mayfield setting the record for most touchdown passes in a season by a rookie quarterback.
The positive finish to the season led the Browns to hire Kitchens as the head coach in 2019 and the team responded to outsized expectations by going 6-10 and seemingly coming up each week with a new, dysfunctional storyline to keep the “same old Browns” narrative humming along.
Along the way, Kitchens clashed with several of the players on offense, most notably Beckham and fellow wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins, along with tight end David Njoku.
The offense has rebounded this season under head coach Kevin Stefanski as the Browns are averaging 26.7 points per game (up from 20.9 last season) and Mayfield has refound his mojo with 23 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions (compared to 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions last season.)
Now with Garrett sidelined, Kitchens will have a front-row seat to see what the Browns offense looks like when it is operating at its full power.