PITTSBURGH — So much for the weight of history. Or practicing. Or having your head coach on the sideline. Or your emotional leader on the field.
The Cleveland Browns overcame all of it. The burden of carrying the mantle of a franchise that’s long been a punchline. A schedule ravaged by a COVID-19 outbreak. A rival that for years has treated them like a harmless little brother.
All of that’s done. For now. And maybe for good.
The Browns dismantled the Pittsburgh Steelers 48-37 in an AFC wild-card game Sunday, picking up the franchise’s first postseason victory in more than a quarter-century and earning a trip to Kansas City this coming Sunday to face the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
“We believe in the people in the room no matter what’s going on,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "We knew that everybody was counting us out. There was no extra pressure or anything. No one believed in us besides us.”
Playing with first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and top cornerback Denzel Ward in Cleveland after all tested positive for COVID-19, Cleveland raced to the biggest first half by a road team in NFL playoff history then held on.
Mayfield threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns, including a screen pass Nick Chubb turned into a 40-yard score that halted Pittsburgh's momentum after the Steelers had pulled within 12. Kareem Hunt added 48 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, and Cleveland's defense forced five turnovers to hand the Steelers a staggering loss.
The victory was the Browns' first postseason triumph of any kind since beating New England on Jan. 1, 1995 — three months before Mayfield was born — and their first playoff win on the road since Dec. 28, 1969. The significance wasn't lost on special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, a Cleveland native who found himself filling in when Stefanski tested positive for COVID-19.
“I grew up (a Browns fan), so I know what this means,” Priefer said.
Cleveland did it despite practicing just once in the past two weeks and having lost 17 straight at Heinz Field. The Browns did it with efficiency and a bit of swagger. They also did it with Priefer at the controls and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt — who played collegiately at Pitt — taking over the play-calling duties as Stefanski watched in his basement.
“We have a resilient team," Mayfield said. "Defense played great in the first half and we kind of stalled out and let them climb back in the game, but that’s a great team win right there — guys stepping up all over the board. I’m proud of these guys.”
The Steelers certainly helped, ending a season in which they started 11-0 with a thud that could reverberate for years. Ben Roethlisberger ended his comeback season by throwing for 501 yards on an NFL-record 47 completions with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
“I don’t have any magical answers,” Roethlisberger said. "We just didn’t put it together. Tonight, the glaring issues is we turned the ball over.”
And over. And over. The NFL's third-ranked defense could do little to stem the tide. The Steelers led the NFL in sacks but failed to get to Mayfield once. Cleveland's 48 points were the most Pittsburgh has allowed in the playoffs, surpassing the 45 it surrendered to Jacksonville in the 2017 playoffs.
Pittsburgh's problems started on the first play from scrimmage when center Maurkice Pouncey's snap sailed by Roethlisberger all the way to the end zone. Cleveland's Karl Joseph fell on it for a touchdown. The miscues were just starting. Roethlisberger threw three first-half interceptions, two of which led directly to Browns scores.
By the time the Steelers found their footing, they were down 28-0. Even when they did get it going on a 1-yard touchdown run by James Conner with 1:44 to go in the half, the Browns stormed right back. Mayfield capped a cathartic opening half with a masterful 64-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard toss to Austin Hooper that put Cleveland up 35-7 at the break.
Pittsburgh tried to claw back in it. The Steelers pulled within 35-23 at the end of the third quarter. Facing fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 46-yard line on the first play of the fourth, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin opted to punt.
“I wanted to pin them down and maybe provide a short field for their offense,” Tomlin said. "I just wanted to keep the momentum going in terms of field positioning.”
It didn't work out. The kick bounced into the end zone for a touchback and Mayfield calmly took Cleveland 80 yards in six plays. The sideline erupted as Chubb streaked into the end zone.
So much for the Browns being the Browns, a winking assessment Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster made about Cleveland in the middle of the week. Regardless of the intent — Smith-Schuster said after the game he didn't regret it — Mayfield and All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett took it to heart.
Then, in front of a mostly empty stadium and a national audience so accustomed to seeing them stumble, the Browns, who didn't win a game in Garrett's first season, took out their frustration by landing one haymaker after another.
“We're the Cleveland Browns,” Garrett said, smirking. “Same old Cleveland Browns.”
Not so much anymore.
Cleveland 28 7 0 13 — 48
Pittsburgh 0 10 13 14 — 37
Cle: Joseph 0 fumble return (Parkey kick), 14:46.
Cle: Landry 40 pass from Mayfield (Parkey kick), 9:46.
Cle: Hunt 11 run (Parkey kick), 4:40.
Cle: Hunt 8 run (Parkey kick), 1:56.
Pit: Conner 1 run (Boswell kick), 1:44.
Cle: Hooper 7 pass from Mayfield (Parkey kick), :34.
Pit: FG Boswell 49, :00.
Pit: Ebron 17 pass from Roethlisberger (pass failed), 7:22.
Pit: Smith-Schuster 5 pass from Roethlisberger (Boswell kick), 2:57.
Cle: Chubb 40 pass from Mayfield (Parkey kick), 12:32.
Pit: Claypool 29 pass from Roethlisberger (pass failed), 11:08.
Cle: FG Parkey 24, 4:28.
Cle: FG Parkey 37, 2:51.
Pit: Claypool 7 pass from Roethlisberger (Conner pass from Roethlisberger), 1:09.
First downs 20 34
Total Net Yards 390 553
Rushes-yards 31-127 16-52
Passing 263 501
Punt Returns 1-8 2-16
Kickoff Returns 3-83 6-146
Interceptions Ret. 4-56 0-0
Comp-Att-Int 21-34-0 47-68-4
Sacked-Yards Lost 0-0 0-0
Punts 5-39.6 3-41.7
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties-Yards 3-20 4-25
Time of Possession 27:14 32:46
RUSHING: Cleveland, Chubb 18-76, Hunt 8-48, Mayfield 5-3. Pittsburgh, Conner 11-37, Snell 2-13, D.Watt 2-2, Roethlisberger 1-0.
PASSING: Cleveland, Mayfield 21-34-0-263. Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger 47-68-4-501.
RECEIVING: Cleveland, Hooper 7-46, Landry 5-92, Chubb 4-69, Higgins 2-28, Hunt 1-13, Peoples-Jones 1-8, Njoku 1-7. Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster 13-157, Johnson 11-117, Ebron 7-62, Washington 5-72, Claypool 5-59, Conner 5-30, Snell 1-4.
MISSED FIELD GOALS: None.