The Cleveland Browns have been dreaming 26 years for a night like this.
Which came after overcoming a nightmare week. And only after avoiding a nightmare finish.
One week after ending the NFL’s longest playoff drought, the Browns also snapped a 17-game losing streak at Heinz Field, which was the third-longest road losing streak to a single opponent in league history.
“I want to congratulate our fans — I grew up one of them,” said Browns special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer, a Cleveland native, who filled in for Kevin Stefanski as acting head coach on Sunday after Stefanski tested positive for COVID-19 last week. “I know what this means.”
Against Pittsburgh, the Browns scored a defensive touchdown on the first play. They tied an NFL playoff record for points in a first quarter. Then they weathered a furious second-half rally from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Cleveland prevailed without Stefanski, who watched the Browns’ victory from his basement back in Cleveland, alone, with his phone turned off. ESPN’s Adam Schefter, however, reported that Stefanski is expected to be cleared to return next weekend against Kansas City.
Browns Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio also tested positive for the virus last week, along with wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge and two offensive assistants, which forced the Browns to close their training facility and wiped out their Wednesday and Thursday practices.
Yet short-handed on the field and along the sidelines — with little practice time — the Browns came out swinging in their first playoff appearance in 17 seasons.
On the first play, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball over the head of Roethlisberger, and Cleveland safety Karl Joseph recovered it in the end zone, giving the Browns a lead after just 14 seconds.
It didn’t take long for the Browns to add to it. M.J. Stewart Jr. intercepted Roethlisberger on the next drive, and Baker Mayfield made the Steelers pay with a 40-yard touchdown strike to Jarvis Landry. Kareem Hunt then extended the lead with a pair of touchdown runs, the second set up by another Roethlisberger interception.
The Browns became the first team to score 28 points in the first quarter of a playoff game since the Oakland Raiders did so in 1969.
After falling behind 35-7, the Steelers finally started scoring. But the Browns never stopped on the way to putting up their most points in a playoff game in the Super Bowl era.
To begin the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin curiously punted on fourth-and-1 near midfield after the Steelers had cut the lead to 35-23 and swung momentum. The Browns capitalized, with Mayfield connecting on a 40-yard touchdown pass off a screen to running back Nick Chubb, effectively putting the Browns back in command.
The last time Cleveland won a playoff game, Bill Belichick was the Browns’ head coach and Mayfield, 25, had yet to be born. The Browns coincidentally defeated Belichick’s future team, the New England Patriots, in the first round then, before falling in Pittsburgh. The Steelers also defeated Cleveland in its previous playoff appearance 18 years ago.
With Pittsburgh resting Roethlisberger and other key players last weekend, the Browns defeated the Steelers to clinch a playoff berth.
This week, Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was asked if these Browns were any different than the ones Pittsburgh had dominated over the years.
“I think they’re still the same Browns teams I play every year,” he answered. “I think they’re nameless gray faces. They have a couple good players on their team, but at the end of the day, like, I don’t know. The Browns is the Browns. They’re a good team, but I’m just happy we’re playing them again.”
Hours before Sunday’s kickoff, Mayfield posted a hype video on his Instagram page titled “Browns is the Browns.”
He then went on to complete 21 of 34 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in his first postseason outing.
“We believe in the people in this room no matter what is going on,” said Mayfield, when asked afterward about the Smith-Schuster quote. “We knew that everybody was counting us out. We knew what mentality we were going to have, and it’s just to cut it loose … because no one believed in us besides us.”
Asked to address his quote following Sunday’s contest, Smith-Schuster said he doesn’t regret the comment.
“They came out and they played a hell of a game,” Smith-Schuster said of the Browns. “You know, there’s been games where we feel we lose them, and today wasn’t our night. And hopefully, the same Browns will show up next week against the same opponent and go out and do the same thing they did tonight and have a hell of a game.”
Following Cleveland’s win, Browns wide receivers assistant Chad O’Shea brought Stefanski into the Browns’ locker room celebration via video call. Other players and coaches conferenced in the players and assistants who were unable to travel due to COVID-19 protocols.
“We’re a team, we stick together, and to have those guys there in our celebration was great,” Mayfield said. “But the best thing about it was the mentality of everybody saying, we didn’t want to just win this game. It’s a stepping stone to where we want to go. … Nobody here is satisfied yet.”