Whatever fever dream the Cleveland Browns are living in, don’t wake them up. Last week, the Browns clinched their first playoff appearance since 2002, ending the NFL’s longest postseason drought. Sunday, they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 48-37 in an AFC wild-card game to notch their first postseason win since 1994. And just about everything went the Browns’ way in this game, as if 26 years of suffering were relieved and reversed in a night that will go down in franchise history as one of the team’s most memorable results.
Sunday’s contest was set up to be a nightmare as the Browns faced a COVID-19 outbreak for the second time this season. On Tuesday, head coach Kevin Stefanski was ruled out for the game after testing positive for COVID-19. Four additional coaches, starting left guard Joel Bitonio, starting cornerback Denzel Ward, backup corner Kevin Johnson, and backup wideout KhaDarel Hodges were each ruled out because of COVID-19 protocols. The Browns held one practice on Friday, conducting a walkthrough to supplement what Stefanski described as “a lot of virtual work.” And head coaching duties for Sunday’s game were entrusted to special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, while offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt assumed play-calling duties in Stefanski’s stead.
But even though that seemed like a recipe for disaster, things unfolded miraculously on Sunday. The Steelers’ first snap of the game sailed over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s head, and Browns safety Karl Joseph recovered the ball in the end zone for the game’s opening touchdown.
On Pittsburgh’s next series, M.J. Stewart recorded an interception, setting up Baker Mayfield’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Jarvis Landry:
The Steelers went three-and-out on their next drive, and six plays later, Browns tailback Kareem Hunt ran in an 11-yard touchdown. Pittsburgh responded by turning the ball over again—Roethlisberger was picked off by Browns safety Sheldrick Redwine—and Hunt once again found the end zone, giving Cleveland a 28-0 lead with 1:56 left in the first quarter.
The Browns’ 28-point advantage tied the record for largest first-quarter lead since the 1970 NFL merger and marked the biggest first-quarter lead in postseason history. It was prolific. It was fast. And it was stunning. One week ago, the Steelers—resting several starters, including Roethlisberger—had pushed the Browns to the final minutes in their regular-season finale; earlier this season, it was Pittsburgh who’d routed the Browns, 38-7, in Week 6. But somehow, Cleveland raced into the lead.
The Browns dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, with their defensive line hindering the Steelers’ quick passing game. Early in the second quarter, Roethlisberger had a pass batted into the air, allowing defensive end Porter Gustin to make a diving interception (Roethlisberger’s third pick of the half). The Steelers finally managed to get a defensive stop, and they drove down the field to get James Conner into the end zone on a 1-yard score, pulling within 21. But the Browns restored their four-touchdown lead on their last drive of the half, with Mayfield zipping a touchdown to tight end Austin Hooper to push Cleveland’s lead to 35-7. Mayfield went 10-for-15 with 111 passing yards and two touchdowns through the first two quarters, and Pittsburgh’s outstanding defense failed to generate a single pressure on him in that span.
However, the Steelers rallied a bit in the second half. Their defense forced a pair of punts, and their offense answered with touchdowns following each. Roethlisberger connected with Eric Ebron for a 17-yard score early in the third quarter, then later hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for another to cut Pittsburgh’s deficit to 35-23. After the Steelers defense forced another quick three-and-out, they were set to draw within one possession, but responded with a three-and-out themselves. At the start of the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh trailed by 12 and faced fourth-and-1 at its own 46-yard line. But instead of going for it, Mike Tomlin elected to punt. Six plays later, Mayfield dumped the ball off to Nick Chubb on a screen, and the tailback split a tackle en route to a 40-yard touchdown to put the game away with about 12 minutes to go.
In another year, perhaps the Steelers’ rally would have found a way back. On Thursday, Smith-Schuster told Pittsburgh media that he wasn’t afraid of facing Cleveland. “I think they’re nameless gray faces,” Smith-Schuster said. “They have a couple good players on their team, but at the end of the day, I don’t know. The Browns is the Browns.”
It turns out, the Browns are the Browns. But these are not the Browns of old; this is a Browns team worth celebrating. Stefanski’s group is fulfilling the vision that general manager Andrew Berry devised in building this roster. On Sunday, Cleveland got contributions from known players, such as Mayfield and Landry; “nameless” players like linebacker Sione Takitaki, who recorded a late-game pick, and Blake Hance, the offensive lineman who filled in for left guard Michael Dunn after being signed off the Jets practice squad this week; and the castoffs, like Joseph and kicker Cody Parkey. That’s been the blueprint all year. It worked again Sunday. And it’s why the Browns finally ended their two-decade playoff drought.
This could just be the beginning, but the likelihood of achieving more this year isn’t high. Next, the Browns will take on the Kansas City Chiefs, the reigning Super Bowl champions who are the current standard for team-building. “Obviously it’s a great challenge for us,” Mayfield told NBC’s Michele Tafoya after Sunday’s game. “But I said it last week after we won the game to get into the playoffs: Once you’re in, anything can happen. We believe in ourselves and we’re gonna keep it that way.” The odds will be against the Browns again. But if everything leading up to Sunday’s victory is proof, that certainly won’t faze them.