PITTSBURGH (AP) — 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, dismantling the Pittsburgh Steelers 48-37 in the wild-card round Sunday night.
It’s the franchise’s first postseason victory in more than a quarter century and earned Cleveland a trip to Kansas City next Sunday to face the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
Playing with first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and top cornerback Denzel Ward back in Cleveland after all tested positive for COVID-19, Cleveland (12-5) raced to the biggest first half by a road team in NFL playoff history then held on.
“We believed,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “People on the outside don’t matter to us. It’s on the inside and we believed the whole time, and that’s all that matters.”
Mayfield threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns, including a screen pass that 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 while Cleveland’s defense forced five turnovers to hand the Steelers (12-5) a staggering loss.
The victory was the Browns’ first postseason triumph of any kind since beating New England on New Year’s Day 1995 — three months before Mayfield was born — and their first playoff win on the road since Dec. 28, 1969.
They did it despite practicing just once over the last two weeks and having lost 17 straight at Heinz Field. They did it with efficiency and a little bit of swagger. And they did it with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer — a Cleveland native — filling in for Stefanski and with offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt — who played collegiately at Pitt — taking over the play-calling duties.
“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 (12-5) 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.
The 48 points were the most the Steelers have given up in the playoffs, surpassing the 45 they gave up 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 — much as it did in its last playoff appearance three years ago, an upset defeat at home to Jacksonville — 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, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin opted to punt.
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 wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster made about Cleveland in the middle of the week. Regardless of the intent — Smith-Schuster’s teammates insisted he was kidding — 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 took out their frustration.
Browns: Will make their first divisional-round appearance since the 1994 playoffs when they face the Chiefs.
Steelers: Head into what will be a busy offseason. Several high-profile players, including Smith-Schuster and outside linebacker Bud Dupree, will become free agents. The 38-year-old Roethlisberger will also have to decide whether he wants to return for an 18th season.
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