For a moment Sunday, the Cleveland Browns appeared on the verge of a meltdown.
After building a 35-7 first half-lead on the heels of a historic first quarter, the Browns let the Steelers back in the game. But they held on for their first playoff victory since the 1994 season when Bill Belichick was Cleveland’s head coach.
Blowout turns tight after halftime
Cleveland’s offense stagnated in the third quarter, posting three-and-outs on back-to-back drives of a scoreless stanza. Meanwhile, a dormant Pittsburgh offense caught fire, scoring three touchdowns and a field goal on four drives spanning the second and third quarters.
The Steelers got conservative with Tomlin punting while facing fourth-and-1 near midfield with a 12-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter. The Browns responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive to stunt the Steelers’ rally and turn the page on a 26-year run without a playoff win.
Browns overcome COVID-plagued week of prep
They did so in dramatic fashion, on the heels of a disastrous week that saw them unable to practice thanks to a COVID-19 outbreak. They came into the game missing multiple key players, including No. 1 cornerback Denzel Ward and Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio. They were also without head coach Kevin Stefanski, who remained in Cleveland after catching COVID-19.
But from the start of the game, it was the Steelers who looked woefully unprepared. Pittsburgh’s first play saw center Maurkice Pouncey snap the ball over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and into the end zone, where the Browns recovered to take a 7-0 lead.
Their second drive saw Roethlisberger throw an interception that Cleveland converted into another touchdown. By the time the first quarter was done, the Browns had punched the Steelers in the mouth to the tune of three forced turnovers and a 28-0 lead.
Something woke the Steelers up at halftime but their deficit was too much. Cleveland advances to next week’s divisional round as the weekend’s least likely playoff victor.
There, they’ll face an even taller task, taking on Patrick Mahomes and the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs.
How the Browns won
The Browns secured the win by seizing on Steelers mistakes and doing what they do best — handing the ball off to Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and looking to Baker Mayfield for efficient play behind center.
Chubb led the ground effort, securing 76 yards on 18 carries. His biggest play arrived on a fourth-quarter screen pass from Mayfield that he hauled in and rumbled for 40 yards to extend Cleveland’s lead to 42-23 and put the game out of reach.
The touchdown was Mayfield’s third of the game. He completed 21 of 34 attempts without turning the ball over. He didn’t take a sack against a Steelers unit that led the league in that category.
Meanwhile Cleveland’s defense made the biggest plays of the game. The Browns forced five turnovers while committing none and forced Roethlisberger into a wild stat line in the loss.
The Steelers’ quarterback completed 47 of 68 attempts for 501 yards and four touchdowns while trying to dig out of the hole that his four interceptions helped dig. The effort did little more than cut Pittsburgh’s deficit from 28 to 11 and put an exclamation point on a season that spiraled out of control after an 11-0 start.
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