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 …