Browns pull off playoff upset of Steelers

For a moment Sunday, the Cleveland Browns appeared on the verge of a meltdown.

But a questionable coaching decision by Mike Tomlin and an 80-yard touchdown drive by the Browns assured that disaster was averted in a stunning 48-37 AFC wild-card victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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.

Cleveland Browns strong safety Karl Joseph (42) celebrates after recovering a fumble in the during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Cleveland punched Pittsburgh in the mouth early and averted disaster in the second half to end a 26-year drought without a playoff win. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

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.

But the Steelers got conservative with Tomlin opting to punt 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 the ball to take a 7-0 lead.

Their second drive saw Roethlisberger throw an interception that Cleveland’s offense 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.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) stands on the sideline after throwing an interception during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers looked unprepared on Sunday. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Something woke the Steelers up at halftime. But their deficit was too much and their rally too late. 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 of to Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and looking to Mayfield for efficient play behind center.

Chubb led the ground effort, securing 76 yards on 18 carries. But 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 the category but failed to mount pressure for most of Sunday’s game.

Meanwhile Cleveland’s defense made the biggest plays of the game. The Browns forced five turnovers while committing none and forcing 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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