Cleveland Browns score 28 points in first quarter, hold on to beat Pittsburgh Steelers in NFL playoffs

PITTSBURGH — Surprise, surprise. The Cleveland Browns have won a playoff game for the first time in 26 years.

Never mind the 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh or the COVID-19 challenges that kept them off the practice field all week.

 The Browns stunned the Steelers in the biggest upset of "Super Wild Card Weekend," 48-37, to advance to an AFC divisional matchup at Kansas City next Sunday.

Cleveland (12-5) stormed to a 28-0 first-quarter lead, then held off a furious Pittsburgh comeback attempt that had the lead trimmed to 12 points at the start of the fourth quarter. The Pittsburgh rally didn’t last. Nick Chubb took a screen pass from Baker Mayfield early in the fourth quarter and turned it into a 40-yard touchdown.

The final result put the Steelers (12-5) out of the misery of a season that at one point seemed so promising — they were the NFL’s last unbeaten team at 11-0 — before skidding off the rails over the past six weeks.

Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt (27) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports)

Cleveland, in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, had not won in postseason since Jan. 1, 1995, when it was coached by Bill Belichick and won a 1994 wild-card game against the New England Patriots.

On Sunday night, the Browns didn’t even have their coach, Kevin Stefanski, on the sideline, and still won at an empty Heinz Field. Stefanski was back in Cleveland, quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19, leaving special teams coordinator Mike Priefer to serve as interim coach and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt to call the plays. The Browns were also without two starters in their secondary, Denzel Ward and Andrew Sendejo, nickel back Kevin Johnson and starting left guard Joel Bitonio, all inactive while on the COVID-19 reserve list.

 Countering all that the Browns did not have, here’s what they had for a winning formula:

  — A quick, early lead provided by a Steelers gaffe. Center Maurkice Pouncey’s wild shotgun snap on the game’s first offensive play was kicked into the end zone and recovered by Karl Joseph for a Cleveland touchdown.

  — Four interceptions of Ben Roethlisberger, who until Sunday night had never lost to the Browns at Heinz Field (13-0) and was 24-2-1 against the AFC North foe. The first pick led to a 40-yard, Baker Mayfield-to-Jarvis Landry touchdown that made it 14-0, roughly five minutes into the contest. The second pick led to the second of Kareem Hunt’s two first-quarter TD runs, extending the lead to 28-0.

 — They answered the Steelers over an over again. Late in the first half, Cleveland responded to Pittsburgh’s first TD with its own TD march. In the fourth quarter, Cleveland regained momentum with Chubb’s TD reception after the Steelers produced two second-half TD drives.

 Three other things we learned from the huge upset at Heinz Field:

 — JuJu Smith-Schuster found another way to make a fool of himself. The Steelers receiver ate crow after dismissing the Browns as little more than a nuisance during a media session last week. Here’s what he said: “I think they’re still the same Browns that I’ve played every year. I think they’re nameless gray faces. They have a couple of good players on their team. But at the end of the day … the Browns is the Browns. I’m just happy we’re playing them again.” So much for respecting your opponent. You’d think that Smith-Schuster would have learned something about respect after his silly pre-game dance ritual drew such rebuke and embarrassment that he declared in late-December that he would scrap the routine. It didn’t take long for him to find another form of ignorance.

  — No, Robert Spillane wasn’t the answer for Pittsburgh’s ailing run defense. The inside linebacker missed the final four regular games with a knee injury, during which time the Steelers allowed an average of 144 rushing yards per game — 33 yards higher than their season average. Pittsburgh’s No. 3 defense finished the regular season ranked 11th against the run, the first time all season that it didn’t rank in the top 10. There was hope, however, with Spillane’s return. Instead, Spillane was run over by Kareem Hunt on an 11-yard TD run — with Hunt driving Spillane the final four yards into the end zone after they collided in the open field. It was hardly all on Spillane as the Steelers defense generally looked slow, sluggish and disinterested in tackling as Cleveland rushed for 132 yards, averaging 4.7 a pop.

 —  The Browns are not the Colts… or the “old” Browns. The only Steelers victory in the six weeks since the uh, perfect record was extinguished, came in Week 16 when they overcame a 24-7 deficit in the third quarter against Indianapolis to claim a 28-24 decision. Well, that was then. Which brings us around to the largest comeback victory in Steelers playoff history. That came with the 2002 Wild Card matchup against…the Browns. Pittsburgh rallied from a 24-7 third-quarter deficit in that one, too, winning 36-33 in overtime. That, too, was then. On Sunday night, Cleveland was hardly willing to give up the early and large advantage it built in the first half. After Pittsburgh cut into Cleveland’s 28-0 lead with an impressive, 13-play, 89-yard TD drive capped by a 1-yard James Conner plunge late in the second quarter, the Browns quickly answered with a 9-play, 64-yard drive finished with Baker Mayfield’s 7-yard TD throw to Austin Hooper. With a potent rushing game, Cleveland was well-equipped to prevent the disaster of blowing a huge lead. 

With 1:09 left, the Steelers scored a TD and two-point conversion to pull within 11.

Roethlisberger threw for 501 yards.

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