There was no reason to expect the Browns to win on Sunday. They were experiencing a coronavirus outbreak that forced head coach Kevin Stefanski to stay away from the facility. He wasn’t even allowed to contact his staff during the game, so he watched from his basement with nobody in the room and his phone off. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt was left to call plays for the first time all season.
Not only was Stefanski out, but so was the team’s best offensive lineman (Joel Bitonio) and two starting cornerbacks (Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson). They had all been placed on the league’s COVID-19 list. The Browns weren’t able to hold an in-person practice until Friday, just two days before the game. Quarterback Baker Mayfield said in a press conference last week he hadn’t even thrown a football as of Thursday, but also said, “It won’t have an impact.”
He was right. The only impact Sunday night was the Browns hitting the Steelers like the meteor that hit the dinosaurs. Cleveland rolled 48-37 to win its first playoff game in 25 years. The devastation was immediate, incomprehensible, and complete. The Browns jumped the Steelers 28-0 in the first 13 minutes of action—the biggest first-quarter lead in NFL playoff history and tied for the biggest first-quarter lead since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. On the game’s opening play from scrimmage, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and the Browns recovered it in the end zone. On Pittsburgh’s next drive, Roethlisberger floated a pass over running back Benny Snell Jr. and was intercepted by cornerback M.J. Stewart. Three plays later, wide receiver Jarvis Landry turned a pass from Mayfield into a 40-yard touchdown. The Browns led 14-0 barely five minutes into the game.
Cleveland forced a three-and-out and another Roethlisberger pick before the quarter was over. Running back Nick Chubb took his first two carries for a combined 37 yards. Kareem Hunt took his first two for touchdowns. Only 28 scrimmage plays had elapsed when the Browns went ahead by four touchdowns. “Cleveland fans,” announcer Al Michaels said on the broadcast, “you are not dreaming this.”
The Steelers mounted a comeback to cut the deficit to 12 points late in the third quarter. But Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin elected to punt instead of going for a critical fourth-and-1 just shy of midfield. The Browns scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive to put the game out of reach. This is Cleveland’s first win in the playoffs since the Browns team coached by Bill Belichick beat the Patriots in 1995. But that history conveys a half-truth. The 1994-95 Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens in 1996. These Browns rejoined the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1999.
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said last week that he didn’t see a difference between this team and those of the past, calling Cleveland “the same Browns.” That’s inaccurate in two ways. This team now stands apart from both the version that beat the Patriots in 1995 and the versions that have failed in myriad and embarrassing ways since. In truth, Sunday was the first playoff victory for the new-look Browns franchise as we know it.
The Browns went 0-16 just three years ago. That was the culmination of the franchise tearing things down to the studs. The team decided that it was in such a deep hole that it gave up on climbing out and decided to drill through rock bottom until it got to the other side. Cleveland hired Paul DePodesta, a former executive for the Oakland A’s who was the inspiration for Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball. It tanked to stockpile good draft picks. The Browns learned about new front-office strategies by meeting with executives from other sports, including then–Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein and Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti. One exec told Browns owner Jimmy Haslam in 2015 that if he committed to blowing up the team, Haslam should “not go to any games for two years.”
The team made plenty of missteps as part of this overhaul, including trading for Odell Beckham Jr., hiring Freddie Kitchens as head coach, and making a series of questionable picks in the 2019 draft. General manager Sashi Brown, one of the architects of this plan, was fired in December 2017; John Dorsey, the GM hired to clean up after Brown, was fired at the end of the 2019 season. Haslam, the Browns owner, is not known for his patience as a manager—and the Browns aren’t even close to his most dysfunctional business. In the past 21 years, the Browns have had 10 GMs, 12 head coaches, and 30 quarterbacks. But Haslam finally has the right answers at all three spots.
Cleveland now has the NFL’s youngest general manager ever, in Andrew Berry. He might also be one of the league’s best. Head coach Kevin Stefanski is one of the favorites to win coach of the year after leading Cleveland to the playoffs in his debut season. And Mayfield has brought an attitude to this team that has been absent in the 21st century. For 20 years, the Browns were the most dysfunctional team in football. But that dysfunction—along with trading for any draft picks they could find—netted them Myles Garrett (no. 1 in 2017), Mayfield (no. 1 in 2018), Ward (no. 4 in 2018), and Chubb (no. 35 in 2018). On Saturday night, Cleveland won a playoff game without its head coach and several top starters. By succeeding even after turning to players their quarterback had never heard of, this organization has officially become functional.
“Michael Dunn stepped in at left guard for Joel Bitonio,” Mayfield told NBC’s Michele Tafoya after the game. “And then Michael got hurt and a guy named Blake that I introduced myself to literally in the locker room before the game stepped up in the fourth quarter.”
The most amazing part of this is that the Browns did it against the Steelers. Coming into this game, Cleveland’s record in Pittsburgh over the past 50 years was 6-44. Before Sunday night, the Browns hadn’t won at Heinz Field since 2003. Since 1970, the Steelers have the highest winning percentage in football and are tied for the most Super Bowl wins. They are football royalty. Meanwhile, the Browns have the third-lowest winning percentage and are one of four teams to never play in a Super Bowl. They are Cleveland. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a career mark of 23-2-1 against Cleveland before the wild-card round, a winning percentage of 90.4. For context, Michael Jordan’s career free throw percentage was 83.5.
The Steelers have dominated the Browns so thoroughly that Cleveland fired six straight head coaches after losses to Pittsburgh (Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rod Chudzinski, Mike Pettine, and Hue Jackson). The last time Cleveland made the playoffs 18 years ago, it lost to, you guessed it, Pittsburgh. Not much changed in the time since. The Steelers thrashed the Browns 38-7 in Week 6, and nearly beat them again in Week 17 despite sitting many of their best players. Pittsburgh’s relationship with Cleveland hasn’t been a rivalry. It’s been predator versus prey. So watching the Browns take a 28-point first-quarter lead over the Steelers in a playoff game was like seeing a mouse pounce on a cat and swallow it whole.
The Browns no longer scurry into corners at the first sign of danger. They are physically tough enough to control the trenches on offense and defense. They are mentally tough enough to endure the absurdity of the past month and thrive. They have not won a Super Bowl, and are double-digit underdogs heading into next week’s divisional-round matchup against the defending champion Chiefs. But they ended the Steelers’ season and made Roethlisberger cry. In Cleveland, that’s worthy of a banner.
On Sunday night, the Browns players ran off the field chanting “same old Browns.” But this team is something new. And it exposed that the Steelers may not be the same old Steelers either.
The Steelers started this season 11-0. They went 1-5 the rest of the way. “We were a group that died on the vine,” Tomlin told reporters after Sunday’s game. Against the Browns, Pittsburgh allowed the most points before halftime in franchise history (35). It was just as bad on offense. It recorded 16 rushing attempts for a meager 52 yards.
Roethlisberger, meanwhile, had one of the strangest performances you’ll ever see: 47-of-68 passing for 501 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions. Interceptions are the last part of a quarterback’s stat line, but they were the defining part of Roethlisberger’s night. In the first quarter, he completed six passes to his own team and two to the Browns, then spent the rest of the game trying to make up for those mistakes. The Steelers somehow had a legitimate chance to catch Cleveland in the second half, but fell short in part because they were overly conservative. Even Pittsburgh’s defense couldn’t save them. As NFL writer Scott Kacsmar pointed out, the Steelers have notched a sack in 73 consecutive regular-season games, but have zero sacks in their past two playoff games.
This loss was characterized by the same problems that have plagued Pittsburgh’s offense for the second half of the season. The Steelers couldn’t run, catch, or block. Roethlisberger wasn’t mobile enough to escape pressure, so he often resorted to throwing quick passes. The 38-year-old averaged 41 passes per game this season, the most of anyone who played at least eight games. He also got rid of the ball in fewer than 2.2 seconds, the fastest rate Pro Football Focus has on record since it began tracking the stat in 2011. Defenses noticed that Roethlisberger was getting rid of the ball before they could sack him, so opposing defensive linemen prioritized trying to bat his passes to force turnovers. Roethlisberger had the second-most batted passes in the NFL this season, behind only Kyler Murray. (Murray is 5-foot-10; Roethlisberger is 6-foot-5.)
When the Washington Football Team upset the previously undefeated Steelers in Week 13, defensive end Chase Young told NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala that “Baltimore exposed some things.” Young was referring to a game from the previous week, when the Ravens kept things close against Pittsburgh despite having half of their starters out on the COVID-19 list. If Baltimore exposed Pittsburgh, the Browns embarrassed them. All of those turnovers on Sunday will lead to the most offseason turnover the franchise has experienced in years.
The biggest question is what happens next with Roethlisberger, who will turn 39 in March. Asked Sunday night whether he can still play at an NFL level, he responded, “I’d like to think so.” He and longtime center Maurkice Pouncey were the last players to leave the field. They have said in the past that they would retire together, and three seasons ago Roethlisberger told teammates that he had three more seasons left in him. Roethlisberger said Sunday night he would discuss retirement with God, his family, and the Steelers in that order.
Roethlisberger is due $19 million in 2021, but because the Steelers did some funny accounting, he’s on the books for a whopping $41 million. That is the largest cap hit for any player in the league. Even if the Steelers were to cut him, or if Ben were to retire, Pittsburgh would still have a more-than-$22 million, Roethlisberger-shaped hole in its cap next season. The easiest way for Pittsburgh to reduce that cap hit would be to sign Roethlisberger to an extension and push some of that money into 2022. This is how teams normally solve these types of problems, but in this case it would require the Steelers committing to Big Ben as the starter for 2021.
That’s complicated because, well, have you seen him play? His throwing arm might be cooked after he had surgery to repair three torn tendons in his elbow in 2019; he also had injuries to both knees this season that made him slower than smell. Yet Pittsburgh doesn’t have a quarterback succession plan. Mason Rudolph has not looked like the heir apparent at any point in his nine career starts. And while the free-agent market features several stopgap options, Pittsburgh would likely require somebody like Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston, or Ryan Fitzpatrick to take an extremely small salary to be a starter, much like Cam Newton did in 2020 with the Patriots.
Another possibility is the Steelers keeping Roethlisberger around while drafting a quarterback in the first round. Yet to do that, the Steelers would have to be sold on players like Trey Lance, Mac Jones, or Kyle Trask, or to trade up to take the third quarterback off the board. They could also try to swing a trade for an established name like Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, and Sam Darnold. Given Pittsburgh’s lack of resources and Roethlisberger’s contract situation, though, Darnold seems to be the only one of those options that could fit. The Steelers are staring into the abyss. They’re the ones thinking about their future at quarterback while the Browns suddenly seem set.
Quarterback is just the beginning of Pittsburgh’s problems. The cap could drop by as much as $25 million next season, from nearly $200 million in 2020 to about $175 million in 2021. The Steelers could need to cut as much as $23 million to get underneath that figure. And this potential shedding will coincide with several of the roster’s big names hitting free agency. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, for instance, will become a free agent in March. Following the emergence of Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, he seems unlikely to return. While JuJu burst onto the scene in 2017 as the no. 2 receiver behind Antonio Brown, he never adequately filled the no. 1 spot after Brown left. Running back James Conner is also set to be a free agent, as are both of the team’s starting offensive tackles (Alejandro Villanueva and Zach Banner) and starting left guard (Matt Feiler).
And that’s just the offense. Defensive end Bud Dupree, who has worked opposite T.J. Watt to form one of the NFL’s most devastating pass-rush tandems, will almost certainly be too expensive for the Steelers to bring back. Key cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton also will be free agents. In 2021, Pittsburgh’s best two defenders, Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, will also be entering the final year of their respective contracts.
Not only is this the messiest mess most Steelers fans can remember, but they also have no idea who will clean it up. Kevin Colbert has been the Steelers GM since 2000, but his contract expires after this year’s draft. His future with the team is uncertain, and the Lions have reportedly been trying to lure him to Detroit. Pittsburgh has a logical successor to Colbert in Omar Khan, the team’s vice president of football operations and business administration, though it’s possible Khan also will take a job with a different team this offseason. Even head coach Mike Tomlin is not a lock to stick around much longer. Tomlin has never had a losing season as the Steelers head coach, but he is entering the final year of his contract in 2021, with a mutual coach and team option year in 2022. There’s a real chance that 2021 could be his final season in Pittsburgh.
The core reason the Steelers have the NFL’s highest winning percentage over the past 50 years is stability. The team has had just three general managers and three head coaches since Richard Nixon was president. The Browns have had three GMs and three full-time head coaches during the Trump administration alone. But Sunday could signal the beginning of a new era. The Steelers have major question marks in the front office and at quarterback after having question marks at neither for most of the past 15 years. The Browns have all of the long-term answers that the Steelers lack. A meteor struck Pittsburgh, and now it’s a matter of time until the Steelers dinosaurs go extinct. The landscape is already unrecognizable.