Stunning first quarter lifts Browns over Steelers for first playoff win since 1994 season
Twenty-eight points was enough. And so was roughly 25 years. The Cleveland Browns burst out to a startling 28-point first-quarter surge and then withstood a Pittsburgh Steelers rally. It added up to Baker Mayfield and the Browns earning a 48-37 Super Wild Card Weekend win over Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers on Sunday for Cleveland’s first postseason triumph since the 1994 season. The Browns will play the Chiefs in the Divisional Round, while the Bills will host the Ravens.
Cleveland Browns 48, Pittsburgh Steelers 37
1) Rejoice Cleveland, another drought hath ended. For the first time since 1994, the Browns have a playoff victory to celebrate and it came at the downfall of the archrival Steelers — in amazing fashion. Buoyed by a first quarter that was a barrage of good fortune for the Browns and an endless nightmare for the Steelers, Cleveland jumped out to a historically magnificent 28-0 lead. Of course, the game didn’t end there. That would’ve been too easy. No, the Steelers flirted with a comeback, and the Browns flirted with disaster. But in the end, Pittsburgh never drew closer than 12 points after the opening surge. It was a win made possible by a resounding first quarter that began when a bad snap over Ben Roethlisberger’s head found its way into the end zone and the Browns’ Karl Joseph found his way atop it for a touchdown and a most absurd start. It was the first play from scrimmage. Did the winds of change and fate blow in all the way from Lake Erie, causing this cosmic turn of franchise lore? Upon the next Steelers drive, an M.J. Stewart interception was had and a mere three plays later, Jarvis Landry rumbled past would-be Pittsburgh tacklers for six. Thereafter came a Steelers punt and then the second of an eventual four Roethlisberger interceptions, with Kareem Hunt scoring after each to build 28 points that were the most by any team in the first quarter of a playoff game since the 1970 NFL merger, per NFL Research. Nobody gave the Browns much of a chance with head coach Kevin Stefanski unable to lead the team due to COVID-19 and special teams coach Mike Priefer acting as interim HC. But the Browns shrugged that all off. It wasn’t just the first quarter, of course. It was stellar performances by Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Hunt, Landry and others, who believed they could change their franchise’s path, when few others did. As history — and fate — would have it, Cleveland’s last two postseason losses came to Pittsburgh, but the 2020 Browns have altered franchise lore and defeated the Steelers in consecutive weeks; the first bestowed upon them their first playoff berth since 2002 and the second has them moving forward. The Divisional Round and the mighty Chiefs are up ahead — and the Steelers and years of heartbreak are behind.
2) For the Steelers, this was a comedy of errors and a confounding conclusion to a season that began better than any other in the storied franchise’s history and collapsed in ridiculous fashion. Pittsburgh’s 11-0 start is now a distant memory amid the rubble of fallen aspirations. The Steelers lost five of their last six games this season, with Sunday’s outcome punctuating a season that began so splendidly and ended so badly. While the defense’s play Sunday was startling, it was the struggles of Roethlisberger and the offense that have been paramount in the team’s tribulations. No matter how good or bad the defense was on this night, overcoming the offense’s five turnovers was too tall a task. Roethlisberger had an NFL-record 47 completions and 501 yards passing, but they couldn’t overcome or overshadow his four interceptions. He had 68 passing attempts while the team ran for 52 yards. For all his struggles, Roethlisberger has been going it solo for the most part as the running game never got going this season, much less this game. As the lights dim on the Steelers’ 2020 season, 2021 brings questions of whether the mighty defense will be wasted if major changes are not brought about on the offensive end.
3) Rightfully, the Browns’ 28-point surge will long be remembered and hailed as fifteen minutes of franchise merriment. But, Mayfield’s 40-yard touchdown to Chubb in the fourth quarter was of monumental importance. The Steelers had cut a seemingly insurmountable deficit to 35-23, but Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin surprisingly decided to punt to open the fourth quarter. Six plays later, Chubb took a short pass over the middle from Mayfield. Forty yards later, many a Browns fan was able to exhale — somewhat, at least. There wasn’t a Browns fan in the universe content with any first-half lead and things were getting interesting before the Mayfield-to-Chubb connection struck. Chubb has never been renowned for his pass-catching skill, but he’s been working on it and the hard work paid off. It was more of a season’s worth of Chubb and Hunt dazzling as one of the top backfield duos. The tandem combined for 206 scrimmage yards and three total touchdowns Sunday.
4) It’s seemingly impossible to overcome your offense turning the ball over five times, as Pittsburgh did Sunday. Nevertheless, the Steelers’ defense is this team’s identity and allowing five offensive touchdowns, forcing no takeaways and tallying no sacks was stunning. Cleveland’s offensive line, despite being hindered by injuries and coaches missing due to COVID, stopped the Steelers’ vaunted pass rush. And when Mayfield and the Browns offense needed a big play, they got it. As shocking as so much was in this game, one of the stunning turn of events was Pittsburgh’s defense being picked apart.
5) For those wondering, this is Baker Mayfield’s team. He was 21 of 34 for 263 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The 2018 No. 1 overall pick still has plenty of career left, but he is the sometimes-brash and always-confident leader these Browns needed to change history. This was the biggest game of his career and he showed up. He’s the first quarterback since Vinny Testaverde to quarterback the Browns to a postseason triumph. Despite all the pitfalls of this chaotic campaign, the Browns are one of the last eight teams left standing, and Mayfield’s been the standard. He’s led even when his play has wavered and he’s been stellar down the stretch. Nobody thought the Browns had much of a chance, but they did. They’re a confident bunch and it starts with Mayfield.
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