The NFL’s longest postseason drought is finally over. Following a 24-22 win against the Steelers on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns are heading to the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
In fitting fashion, Baker Mayfield—the quarterback the Browns drafted first overall in 2018—was the one to seal the victory. Facing third-and-1 with 1:10 remaining and the Browns up two, Mayfield followed a cavalcade of blockers off the right side of Cleveland’s offensive line. He surged ahead for a game-clinching first down, and then celebrated with a joyous fist-pump.
“We know that we’ve got a really tough division,” Mayfield said during a postgame interview, still clutching the game ball. “Playing [the Steelers], it’s gonna be a physical ball game and you’re gonna have to find a way to win. There’s a lot of different ways—had to make some scrambles today, but we got into a third-and-manageable right there, and … I don’t know! They made great blocks, I didn’t have to do anything.”
When the Browns picked Mayfield three years ago, they hoped he could accomplish a feat that 29 quarterbacks before him couldn’t: bring Cleveland back to the playoffs. Three seasons later, he’s delivered. The Browns locked up the AFC’s no. 6 seed on Sunday and, at 11-5, marked their winningest season since 1994, when Bill Belichick led the franchise to its last postseason victory. The Browns bounced back from a shorthanded defeat to the Jets last week to finish off one of the most exciting campaigns in club history—and earn their postseason bid against a heated division rival.
Significant credit should be handed to first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, the former Vikings offensive coordinator who didn’t meet his Cleveland players in person until training camp this summer, well after he’d been hired. Eight different coaches had helmed the Browns since they last reached the postseason—as The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd eloquently put it: Stefanski was tasked with “exorcising 20 years of demons and dumbasses.” And Stefanski, who’s a likely leader for the NFL’s Coach of the Year award, did it in one year.
“We were all brought here for a reason,” Mayfield said after the game. “And that’s to reset the standard here. We’re getting back to what it needs to be—to a winning culture. And it’s a starting point.”
Last week, the team’s entire receiving unit was on the NFL COVID-19 list, and the Browns missed their chance to punch their postseason ticket against the Jets. But this week, back at near-full strength, Cleveland got the best of the Steelers, who put up a fight despite starting backup quarterback Mason Rudolph. The Browns jumped out to an early lead, with star running back Nick Chubb scoring on an incredible 47-yard run as he eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second straight season.
The Steelers hung around thanks to their defense, which entered the week no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. Pittsburgh forced a handful of Cleveland punts and chipped in a trio of Matthew Wright field goals to pull within one midway through the third quarter, but then Mayfield connected with tight end Austin Hooper on a 2-yard score, giving the Browns an eight-point lead. On the Steelers’ ensuing drive, Rudolph was intercepted by cornerback M.J. Stewart, a 2018 second-round pick. The turnover set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Jarvis Landry, extending Cleveland’s advantage to 24-9 early in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers answered back. Rudolph fired a 28-yard touchdown pass to rookie wideout Chase Claypool. And after Cleveland’s ensuing drive stalled in Pittsburgh territory, Rudolph—who finished the game 22-of-39 for 315 yards, two scores, and one pick—drove the Steelers inside the Browns’ 5-yard line and found JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 2-yard touchdown. Pittsburgh went for two to tie the game, but Rudolph’s throw sailed high of Claypool, and after tight end Stephen Carlson recovered an onside kick, Mayfield and Co. were able to drain the rest of the clock.
Browns fans praising the heavens that Stephen Carlson played catcher in little league at some point pic.twitter.com/TwSsry8idJ— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) January 3, 2021
Finally, the Browns are back in the postseason. Mayfield’s elation after securing the final first down and the reaction from the handful of fans inside FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday suggested just how significant the result was. The Browns’ blueprint to return to this point was obvious. General manager Andrew Berry has helped build one of the NFL’s most talented rosters. And this offseason, the front office moved on from Freddie Kitchens in favor of Stefanski—the Browns’ third coach in as many seasons—in hopes that he could lift Cleveland over the hump.
Mayfield faced questions entering his third season, and the Browns came into the year at a major crossroads in the franchise’s trajectory. But Mayfield responded in a major way, and now the Browns will travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in their wild-card matchup next week. Regardless of how the contest goes, this is a huge breakthrough, for the players and the franchise at large. But even so, both Mayfield and Stefanski said on Sunday that this is only a starting point.
“It’s not over,” Stefanski said, “we’ve got work left to do. I like this football team. I like how this football team works. I like how this football team responds when our back is up against the wall. We’ll just keep grinding away on this thing and then we’ll wait for the reflection for much later.”