The Browns’ 48-37 first-round playoff victory over the Steelers both redefined how poorly an NFL can play for a quarter and transposed the history of a one-sided rivalry. The Steelers packed a startling barrage of humiliation into the first quarter, a mixture of slapstick disaster and physical inadequacy. The Browns played without their head coach after a coronavirus outbreak ravaged their locker room and practice schedule for the past two weeks, and they dominated as the Steelers unraveled.
The first snap of the game sailed over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and became a Browns touchdown. The eighth was an interception, one of two Roethlisberger heaved in the first quarter. Receivers slashed through the Steelers’ secondary. Browns linemen shoved scrums into Pittsburgh’s end zone. Roethlisberger stumbled around and threw feeble passes. It was 28-0 after 13 minutes. The AFC North champions, the third seed, the legacy franchise that won its first 11 games, was forced to question its direction, including the future of 38-year-old Roethlisberger.
“This loss is fresh,” said Roethlisberger, who sat alone, helmet still on, on the Pittsburgh bench as players left the field. “It’s just sitting on our hearts and minds right now. It will be for a while.”
The sixth-seeded Browns convened most of the week over Zoom and arrived Sunday night at Heinz Field without head coach and play-caller Kevin Stefanski, victims of a covid outbreak at a cruel moment. They had not been to the playoffs since 2002, and their return appeared to be the intersection of an unsparing year and a cursed franchise. Their team colors are orange, brown and gloom. The NFL’s doormat, the team that was outscored by its opponents this season, manhandled the franchise that tormented it for decades.
Asked this week about playing Cleveland, Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said he saw no difference in the team, concluding with, “the Browns is the Browns.” As Browns players ran off the field, they gleefully yelled, “Same old Browns!”
“Any talk like that is going to be disrespectful to anybody on any team,” Browns defensive end Myles Garrett said. “We definitely didn’t appreciate it. I feel like we made that known with our performance.”
“I wasn’t here for the things that happened in the past, some of which I was too young to remember,” Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “There’s a new standard. We’re going to try to keep it that way.”
Now that they have won in Pittsburgh for the first time since Tim Couch was their quarterback (2003) and won a playoff game for the first time since Bill Belichick was their coach (1994), the Browns will travel to Kansas City to face the top-seeded, defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. Stefanski will take the reins back from cameo head coach and usual special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, a native Clevelander who owns the most unusual 1-0 record in NFL history.
“I want to congratulate our fans,” Priefer said. “I grew up one of them, so I know what this means.”
Stefanski led team meetings all week remotely all week, even Saturday night. “As much as we’ve been on Zoom calls,” Mayfield said, “it was pretty normal for a non-normal year.”
On the eve of the game, over a video screen from his house, Stefanski outlined three crucial points. He told the Browns they would have to win the turnover battle – they intercepted five passes and didn’t once give the ball away. He told them to rely on technique and fundamentals – they had not practiced last week until Friday, and had prepared for the biggest game of their careers with rescheduled walk-throughs and meetings. And he told them to play as a team.
The Browns played with star guard Joel Bitonio on the covid/reserve list, and injuries during the game forced just-signed guard Blake Hance into the game in the fourth quarter. Because of covid protocols, Hance has still not been inside Cleveland’s facility, and Mayfield only met him Sunday night before the game. The Browns were so short on linemen that defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi blocked on the field goal team.
“They never batted an eye,” Priefer said. “As coaches, we were probably more concerned than they were. They had a ton of resiliency, and they’ve had it all year long.”
Sometime in the third quarter, the burden of being the Browns started to weigh heavy. Roethlisberger conducted a spread-out passing attack. The Browns stopped running the ball. The clock moved like molasses. The lead shrank to 35-23. After another Browns three-and-out, memories of The Drive and The Fumble surfaced in every Cleveland household, and worry started to overtake joy on the visiting sideline.
These Browns are different, though – and so are these Steelers. Coach Mike Tomlin made the suboptimal choice to open the fourth quarter by punting after a fourth and one from his 46-yard line, giving the ball to the Browns despite trailing and gathering force.
“I wanted to pin them down,” Tomlin said. “I just wanted to keep momentum going in terms of field positioning.”
Mayfield stabilized the Browns with a massive third-down completion. Nick Chubb converted a perfect play call by offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, a screen pass into a blitz, by bouncing off a tackler and accelerating like a rocket for a 40-yard touchdown. The Steelers didn’t stop charging, but the lead never again felt tenuous.
“I was thinking of it more as a coach,” Priefer said. “Now after the game, I can understand why people are probably a little bit nervous. It’s the Steelers and the Browns and this rivalry.”
The Steelers’ undoing began immediately. Center Maurkice Pouncey sailed the first snap high from the 22-yard line. Roethlisberger flailed and looked hopelessly skyward, like a squinting tourist in New York. Running back James Connor attempted to cover the ball without rolling into the end zone for a safety, and instead he missed it altogether.
“It was almost like he watched it roll,” Garrett said. “I was getting ready to tackle him, and he never jumped on it.”
Garrett slid and deflected the ball into the end zone. Safety Karl Joseph beat a pack of teammates and pounced on the ball. The Browns had waited 18 years to return to the postseason, and it took them 14 seconds and one opponent’s snap to score a touchdown.
The Browns would not let the Steelers recover. With pressure in his face, Roethlisberger shuffled and threw a panicky floater over running back Benny Snell’s head. Cornerback M.J. Stewart intercepted it.
By the time the Steelers’ defense took the field, they trailed 7-0 stood on their 47-yard line and had seen their offense turn the ball over twice. It offered a performance no more inspiring. On the Browns’ third play, Mayfield rifled a slant to Jarvis Landry, who sprinted past a passel of defensive backs until he dived into the end zone.
Out of the game’s first 11 plays, three were unmitigated catastrophes for the Steelers. The ratio improved, but just barely. A Steelers three-and-out set the Browns up at their 35. Chubb shredded the Steelers for runs of 17 and 20 yards, Cleveland’s offensive line manhandling the Steelers. Four plays later, running back Kareem Hunt danced 11 yards into the end zone.
Enmeshed in quicksand, the Steelers kept sinking. Roethlisberger’s pass deep over the middle zipped into the hands of Browns safety Sheldrick Redwine, who weaved deep into Pittsburgh territory. It took three plays for Hunt to score his second touchdown, an eight-yard scamper that ended with him waving to the Terrible Towel draped over two sections of yellow seats.
The Steelers contributed to their own demise, but the startling disparity between the teams showed after Pittsburgh provided a glimmer. When they scored a touchdown with 1:44 left in the first half, Mayfield responded with his best drive of the night. He scrambled on third and six to pick up a first down, then completed five straight passes, the last a seven-yard touchdown to tight end Austin Hooper.
When linebacker Sione Takitaki intercepted Roethlisberger with 3:16 left – the fourth pick Roethlisberger threw – Cleveland started a celebration 27 years in the making. Freighted with massive expectations last season, the Browns went 6-10 under first-year coach Freddie Kitchens. In his first season, Stefanski rebuilt Mayfield and injected order into a franchise subsumed by chaos.
Where do the Steelers go from here? A 1-5 finish and injuries to linebackers Bud Dupree and Devin Bush exposed their roster’s deficiencies, and Roethlisberger’s ability to make it through an entire season at full health and capability is an open question. They can’t rebuild if Roethlisberger returns to play his age-39 season, but the way he played down the stretch raised doubts about how far he can take them – especially in a division that includes the Browns and Baltimore Ravens. He apologized to teammates and fans for his play Sunday night.
“There’s pain associated with where we are right now,” Tomlin said. “Ain’t no running away from that.”
For decades, the Steelers owned the Browns. In minutes, a cursed franchise without a coach changed everything. They left no doubt these Browns are not the same Browns.
“It was time to change the culture,” Garrett said. “To change the trajectory of what people think about us.”
Story by Adam Kilgore. Updates below by Des Bieler …
Ben Roethlisberger throws fourth interception, Browns lead 48-29
By Des Bieler
Ben Roethlisberger threw his fourth interception, and this one might have sealed his team’s doom. With a little over three minutes remaining and his Pittsburgh Steelers down by 16 points, Roethlisberger’s pass over the middle was picked off Cleveland Browns linebacker Sione Takitaki.
After making a leaping grab, Takitaki returned the ball to the Steelers’ 25-yard line, where the Browns could start a drive already in field-goal position. Sure enough, after three plays gained six yards, Cody Parkey made a kick from 37 yards out that increased Cleveland’s lead to 48-29.
The Browns haven’t won a playoff game since 1995, but even by their standards they would have to suffer an absolutely epic collapse to give away this victory.
Browns kick field goal, lead is up to 45-29
By Des Bieler
A game with all sorts of scoring got just its second field goal, and it bumped the Cleveland Browns’ lead to 16 points, at 45-29. Cody Parkey delivered from 24 yards out after the Browns got to the Steelers’ 6-yard line but couldn’t score on a third-down pass play.
Settling for three points kept Pittsburgh within two scores, along with a pair of two-point conversions, but the preceding drive was most helpful to Cleveland’s cause. The Browns used 13 plays to go 59 yards, chewing up 6 minutes 40 seconds.
Steelers score quickly, now trail 42-29
By Des Bieler
Okay, it was crazy to think that Cleveland Browns fans could ever exhale, even a little bit (see previous update). The Pittsburgh Steelers needed just four plays to go 76 yards, quickly answering a Browns touchdown with one of their own.
The Steelers failed on a two-point conversion, however, so the net effect was to add a point to Cleveland’s lead. Still, that Pittsburgh drive, on which Ben Roethlisberger completed all four pass attempts for all 76 yards, looked disconcertingly easy (or delightfully easy, to Steelers fans).
The drive ended with a 29-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chase Claypool. Roethlisberger, with over 10 minutes left in the game, has thrown 56 passes, completing 40 for 409 yards and three touchdowns, plus three interceptions that all came in the first half.
Nick Chubb scores for Browns, who push lead to 42-23
By Des Bieler
Maybe, just maybe, Cleveland Browns fans can exhale a bit.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers making things far too interesting, considering the Browns started the game with a 28-0 lead, Cleveland running back Nick Chubb took a short pass and bolted past defenders for a fourth-quarter touchdown that helped his team push its lead back to 42-23.
The key moment on the drive, however, might have been a completion from Baker Mayfield to wide receiver Jarvis Landry on third and two. That play went for 17 yards, but even more importantly, it allowed the Browns to move the chains after two straight three-and-out drives that helped the Steelers get back into it.
Another key moment occurred just before the drive, when Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin elected not to go for it on fourth and 1 play from his team’s 46. That decision is one of several by the coach that, if the Steelers go on to lose, will be heavily questioned.
Chubb has 134 yards from scrimmage.
Steelers score on fourth down, trim deficit to 35-23
By Des Bieler
The Pittsburgh Steelers eschewed a potential field goal on fourth and goal from the Cleveland Browns’ 5-yard line, and the decision paid off.
Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster corralled a pass from Ben Roethlisberger, and the ensuing extra point cut the Steelers’ deficit to 35-23. The Browns held a 35-7 lead with less than a minute left in the first half.
With Pittsburgh calling almost exclusively passing plays in an effort to stage a massive rally, Cleveland’s pass rush has been lacking in the second half, and that has allowed Roethlisberger, who suffered through a nightmarish first half, to get into a groove. He has completed 13 of 19 passes in the second half, with two touchdowns.
Steelers score first in second half, cut deficit to 35-16
By Des Bieler
The Cleveland Browns got the ball first in the second half, but the Pittsburgh Steelers scored first, and now it’s a 35-16 game.
Following a Browns punt, the Steelers went 84 yards in eight plays, scoring on a 17-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to tight end Eric Ebron. Pittsburgh failed on a subsequent two-point conversion attempt.
Cleveland’s offense followed with a three-and-out possession, punting the ball back to Pittsburgh.
Browns fans already nervous about their team’s ability to hold a big lead, which was 28-0 after the first quarter and 35-7 late in the second, have more reason to fear the worst. If the Steelers manage to win, it will be just the fourth time in NFL playoff history a team has rallied from at least 25 points down. The most recent instance came in 2016, when the New England Patriots famously came back from 28-3 down to the Atlanta Falcons.
Browns hold 35-10 lead over Steelers at halftime
By Des Bieler
The long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan base was due for some good things to happen. But it was hard to imagine so many good things would happen over the first 30 minutes of their team’s playoff game Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Browns went to the locker room with a 35-10 lead after the Steelers kicked a 49-yard field goal just as the second quarter ended. Shortly before that, Cleveland tight end Austin Hooper scored on a seven-yard pass from quarterback Baker Mayfield, but the major fireworks came in a first quarter in which the Browns set franchise and post-merger NFL playoff records by sprinting out to a 28-0 lead.
Cleveland was efficient on offense, particularly on the ground, where running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combined to carry the ball 12 times for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Mayfield was no slouch, either, completing 10 of 15 passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
The Browns’ cause was aided enormously by a slew of Steelers miscues, most notably three interceptions by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The tone of Pittsburgh sloppiness was set on the first play from scrimmage, when a high snap sent the ball over Roethlisberger’s head and eventually into the end zone, where it was recovered for a Browns touchdown.
In terms of passes completed to his own teammates, Roethlisberger went 20 of 30 for 177 yards and a 42.6 rating in the first half. Pittsburgh’s one touchdown was scored by running back James Conner, but he gained just 32 yards on 10 carries.
This is the Browns, so it’s too early too assume the lead is safe, but if it holds up, Cleveland will get its first playoff win since 1995. It is also looking to win at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field for the first time since 2003, one season after the Browns’ most recent playoff appearance. Finally, the Browns have not won a playoff game outside of Cleveland since 1969, so the team has all sorts of opportunity here to shed the shackles of past disappointment.
Steelers score to cut deficit to 28-7
By Des Bieler
The Pittsburgh Steelers took most of the first half to get on the board, during which they fell behind 28-0, but they have finally scored points. Running back James Conner ran in a touchdown from one yard out to cut the Cleveland Browns’ lead to 28-7 with 1:44 left in the first half.
The Steelers needed to convert on a fourth-and-one play, and nearly failed to do so, just before Conner’s touchdown. Ultimately, though, they were able to go 89 yards on 13 plays to get a score they desperately needed.
Earlier in the second quarter, the Browns failed to take advantage of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s third interception of the game, which defensive lineman Porter Gustin caught on a diving play. At another point, the Steelers punted on a fourth and nine at Cleveland’s 38, despite the fact that they were down by four touchdowns.
Browns’ first-quarter explosion was the biggest since …
By Des Bieler
The Cleveland Browns didn’t just jump out to a stunning lead against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they attained some superlatives, too.
The 28-0 lead by the Browns was the first after just one quarter of play in a postseason game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. According to Pro Football Reference, in a 1969 AFL playoff game, the Oakland Raiders, coached by John Madden, took a 28-0 first-quarter lead against the Houston Oilers en route to a 56-7 win.
Pro Football Reference also dug into its database to report that Sunday’s 28-0 lead was the largest for the Browns after one quarter in any game, regular season or playoffs, since at least 1940. It was just the 15th game since 1940 in which any NFL team had such a large lead after the first quarter.
Browns turn third Steelers turnover into 28-0, first-quarter lead
By Des Bieler
We’re still in the first quarter, but somehow Kareem Hunt has two touchdowns, the Pittsburgh Steelers have three turnovers and the Cleveland Browns have scored four times to take a 28-0 lead.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw his second interception, again on a pass that was too high for its intended target, and the Browns again showed they are in no mood to spare their longtime tormenter any mercy. Three plays after the pick was returned to Pittsburgh’s 15-yard-line by Browns safety Sheldrick Redwine, Hunt ran eight yards to reach the end zone a second time.
NBC announced on its telecast that it was the first 28-0, first-quarter lead in NFL playoff history.
Browns take 21-0 lead on Kareem Hunt TD
By Des Bieler
Which team is playing without its head coach, after barely practicing for the past two weeks because of coronavirus issues?
That team would be the Cleveland Browns, but you would hardly know it from how their playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers has started. The Browns are up by a shocking 21-0 count, with more than four minutes remaining in the first half.
This time, the Browns got the ball back on a Steelers punt, rather than a turnover, but the result was eventually the same. Cleveland went 65 yards in just six plays, with running back Kareem Hunt capping the drive with an 11-yard run on which he bulldozed into the end zone despite the efforts of Pittsburgh defenders.
It’s very much as if the Browns are unleashing 18 years of frustrations, after not having played in a postseason game since 2003 — when they lost to the Steelers.
Browns turn interception into swift 14-0 lead
By Des Bieler
Well, alrighty then. Just over five minutes into the game we have a 14-0 Cleveland Browns lead. In the playoffs. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, at Heinz Field.
After a stunning Steelers fumble handed the Browns their first score mere seconds into the contest, another Pittsburgh gaffe set up the second. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger floated a high, short pass that was picked off by Cleveland’s M.J. Stewart Jr., and it took the Browns just three plays to capitalize.
On a third-and-four play from Pittsburgh’s 40, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield found wide receiver Jarvis Landry over the middle. Landry took it the rest of the way, with the help of a solid block downfield by wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. What a start for Cleveland!
Browns score quickly on Steelers fumble, lead 7-0
By Des Bieler
The Cleveland Browns waited 18 years for another playoff game. It took them only 14 seconds to score.
On the game’s first play from scrimmage, from the Pittsburgh 22, a bad snap went over the head of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and rolled back toward his end zone. After a scramble involving a number of players from both sides, Cleveland’s Karl Joseph came away with the ball in the end zone for a stunning score.
Cleveland Coach Kevin Stefanski, four Browns out after positive tests
By Des Bieler
The Cleveland Browns will be without head coach Kevin Stefanski and four players for the playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers because of positive tests for the coronavirus.
Stefanski, guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge returned positive tests this week, and cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Denzel Ward tested positive earlier this month and have not yet been cleared to return. In Stefanski’s place, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will serve as the Browns’ acting head coach Sunday.
Stefanski can’t coach the Browns remotely because the NFL has long disallowed any outside communication into games between kickoff and the final whistle. The first-year coach has been calling plays for Cleveland, so he will be replaced Sunday in that role by offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt.
On Saturday, the Browns activated three players off the covid/reserve list: tight end Harrison Bryant, starting safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. — whose positive test this week was later deemed to be a false positive — and starting linebacker Malcolm Smith. The team said Sunday that Robert Jackson would start in place of Ward and that Michael Dunn would replace Bitonio at left guard.
Cleveland also announced that six players will be inactive for the game: cornerback Brian Allen, wide receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley, wide receiver Marvin Hall, safety Jovante Moffatt, tackle Alex Taylor and safety Tedric Thompson.
The Steelers’ inactive list includes: defensive end Isaiah Buggs, safety Antoine Brooks Jr., quarterback Josh Dobbs, linebacker Jayrone Elliott, guard Danny Isidora and running back Anthony McFarland.