PITTSBURGH – So much for the weight of the story. Or practicing. Or have your head coach on the sideline. Or your emotional leader in the field.
The Cleveland Browns overcame it all, dismantling the Pittsburgh Steelers 48-29 in the wild card round on Sunday night.
It is the franchise’s first post-season win in more than a quarter of a century, and it yielded a trip to Kansas City next Sunday to face current Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
Playing with first year head coach Kevin Stefanski, Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and cornerback Denzel Ward back in Cleveland after everyone tested positive for COVID-19, Cleveland (12-5) ran for the best first half by a NFL road team the history of the playoffs then remained.
Baker Mayfield launched 263 yards and three touchdowns, including a screen pass that Nick Chubb turned into a 40-yard scoreboard that interrupted Pittsburgh’s momentum after the Steelers pulled in 12. Kareem Hunt added 48 yards and two touchdowns on the ground while Cleveland’s defense forced five turnovers to give the Steelers (12-5) an impressive loss.
The victory was the Browns’ first post-season triumph of any kind since their victory over New England on New Year’s Day 1995 – three months before Mayfield’s birth – and their first playoff victory on the road since December 28 1969.
They did it, despite practicing only once in the past two weeks and losing 17 straight at Heinz Field. They did it efficiently and with a little arrogance. And they did that with special team coordinator Mike Priefer – a Cleveland native – replacing Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt – who played collegially at Pitt – taking over the game.
The Steelers (12-5) certainly helped, ending a season in which they started with 11-0 with a thud that could reverberate for years. Ben Roethlisberger ended his comeback season playing for 501 yards in an NFL record of 47 submissions, with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
The 48 points were the maximum that the Steelers gave up in the playoffs, surpassing the 45 that they gave up on Jacksonville in the 2017 playoffs.
Pittsburgh’s problems started on the first play of scrimmage, when Maurkice Pouncey’s penalty went through Roethlisberger to the end zone. Cleveland’s Karl Joseph fell for a touchdown. The mistakes were just beginning. Roethlisberger launched three interceptions in the first half, two of which led directly to the Browns’ score.
When the Steelers found their foot, they were losing 28-0. Even when they managed to go on a 1 yard touchdown run by James Conner with 1:44 to go to the middle, the Browns attacked back. Mayfield crowned the first cathartic half with a masterful 64-yard move that ended with a 7-yard throw for Austin Hooper that put Cleveland 35-7 in the break.
Pittsburgh – just as it did in its last playoff appearance three years ago, a home loss to Jacksonville – tried to recover. Steelers fell 35-23 at the end of the third quarter. Facing fourth to fourth at Pittsburgh 46, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin chose to punt.
Did not work. The kick jumped into the end zone for a touchback and Mayfield calmly took Cleveland to 80 yards in six moves. The sideline broke when Chubb entered the end zone.
So much for the Browns to be the Browns, an assessment by Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster did about mid-week Cleveland. Regardless of the intention – Smith-Schuster’s teammates insisted he was joking – Mayfield and the All-Pro’s defensive side Myles Garrett took this seriously.
Then, in front of an almost empty stadium and a national audience so used to seeing them stumble, the Browns took out their frustration.
Browns: All-Pro tackle Jake Conklin was released to play after being listed as questionable with an “illness” on Friday. His return did not last long. He left in the first half with a tendon injury. Guard Michael Dunn, stepping in for Bitonio, left in the fourth period with a calf problem.
Steelers: Rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith and defender Mike Hilton suffered injuries in the second half and did not return.
Browns: will make his first appearance in the division round since the 1994 playoffs, when he will face the Chiefs.
Steelers: enter what will be a busy low season. Several high-profile players, including Smith-Schuster and linebacker Bud Dupree, will become free agents. Roethlisberger, 38, will also have to decide whether he wants to return for an 18th season.