CLEVELAND – Long after the game was over, fans hung around FirstEnergy Stadium taking selfies and photos of each other with the field in the background. This was a moment they had been waiting for since the 2002 season.
On Sunday, the Browns finally ended the NFL’s longest playoff drought with a 24:22 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, catapulting Cleveland into the postseason for the first time in 17 seasons.
“I’m really only happy for our fans,” said head coach Kevin Stefanski in the first year. “You deserve it. And we’re happy to deliver it to you.”
However, the moment did not come easy.
Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph tossed a touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster who stayed 1:26 to bring the Steelers to two points. Rudolph’s two-point attempt, however, sailed over Chase Claypool’s head.
Brown’s close end Stephen Carlson then recovered Pittsburgh’s onside attempt, and quarterback Baker Mayfield went underground for the first time to seal the win. Mayfield immediately jumped up and threw his fist with everything he had before the crowd, limited to 12,000 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, jumped as “House of Pain” boomed through the stadium speakers.
Mayfield, who announced to the NFL Combine three years ago that he could be the quarterback to turn the Browns over for good, was the last player to leave the field. He kissed the fans with both hands as he walked through the tunnel.
“It’s a moment I will definitely never forget,” Mayfield said. “The feeling of leaving the field, the energy in the stadium, they are playing ‘Cleveland Rocks’ … to make it so loud with a limited number of fans, it was a special moment for us.”
Cleveland’s win leads to a first-round rematch against the Steelers in Pittsburgh next weekend. Cleveland’s only other playoff appearance this century was in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers won 36-33.
“We’re not satisfied,” said Mayfield. “We expected to be here. We worked very hard to get here and we’re excited to have the chance to make it to the playoffs.”
The Browns prevailed against the Steelers in Sunday’s showdown despite having had problems related to COVID-19 all week.
Cleveland has had to close its exercise facility four times in the past eight days and had to stop training on Thursday while the contact tracing was in progress. On Friday, the Browns weren’t even allowed to use their locker room as the equipment staff converted the field house into a makeshift dressing area before training.
Last week linebacker B.J. Goodson, Harrison Bryant, linebackers Malcolm Smith, security Andrew Sendejo and cornerback Denzel Ward – all starters – tested positive for the virus and kicked them out of the game on Sunday. The Browns were also without offensive assistant coaches Chad O’Shea and Bill Callahan due to the COVID-19 protocols.
But against the Steelers, who rested several key players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, after winning the AFC North Division, the Browns did just enough to get the win.
Nick Chubb and Jarvis Landry rushed to touchdowns, and Mayfield linked up with Austin Hooper towards the end of the third quarter for a 2-yard score. The Browns couldn’t get Pittsburgh out of the way until the end, however, as Rudolph passed for a pitch of 315 yards and two touchdowns.
“”[We] fought adversity through the week, “said Stefanski,” and through the game. “
The last time Cleveland made the playoffs, 38-year-old Stefanski was an All-Ivy League Safety Honorable Mention for Penn. Mayfield and the defensive end Myles Garrett, Cleveland’s number 1 top pick of 2017 and 2018, were in grade school.
“There are so many browns [fans] All over the world, who were so happy we got this victory, “said Garrett.” Finally get into the dance. “
After the game, Garrett went to Rudolph near the Steelers Tunnel. The two hadn’t talked since Garrett brandished a helmet on Rudolph’s head, resulting in an end-of-season suspension. Garrett later accused Rudolph of instigating him with a racial fraud, which Rudolph has repeatedly denied. Although the incident dwarfed last year’s meeting, it was barely a footnote during Sunday’s game.
“I just told him a good game, told him he played a damn good game and I’ll see you in a week,” said Garrett of the exchange, which Rudolph later confirmed. “He did well and did some great things for her.”
Rudolph has a Image of him and Garrett on Instagram with the heading “Forward and Up” after the game.
To keep its season going, Cleveland will have to beat another nefarious streak. The Browns have lost 17 games in a row in Pittsburgh – the third longest losing streak against a single opponent in NFL history, according to Elias.
The Steelers also eliminated Cleveland from its two previous playoff appearances in 2002 and also in 1994 when Bill Belichick coached the Browns.
“We’re in the dance,” said Stefanski. “But we still have a lot to do. We want to keep this thing going.”