By: Michael Sampogna
The Cleveland Browns capitalized on their 18 season playoff drought by defeating the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers in a 48-37 win. This was also the Browns first win in Heinz Field since a week five matchup in 2003.
The Browns overcame a lot of obstacles prior to this Wild Card game. They had only practiced once due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Key players were out due to COVID-19 protocol such as offensive lineman Joe Bitonio and defensive back Denzel Ward. Four coaches were also out, including head coach Kevin Stefanski. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer filled in as the head coach with Stefanski at home quarantining. All odds were against the Browns in this matchup, but they managed to surpass all of them.
Things went ugly for the Steelers immediately starting with the first possession of the game when centre Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball high out of Ben Roethlisberger’s reach. The Browns defence was able to fall on the football in Pittsburgh’s end-zone and take the early 7-0 lead.
The Browns put up 28 points in the first quarter which set a record for the most scored in the opening quarter by any NFL team in history. The nightmare continued in the first half for the Steelers as Roethlisberger threw three interceptions and two of which led to almost immediate touchdowns by the Browns offense.
By halftime the score was 35-10 Browns and this lopsided affair looked like it was over before 60 minutes of action. The Steelers attempted to claw their way back in the game putting up 23 unanswered points in the third quarter. The momentum began to sway Pittsburgh’s way, however the Browns would not take their foot off the pedal scoring a 40-yard touchdown off of a screen pass for running back Nick Chubb in the beginning stages of the fourth quarter.
Following that drive, the Steelers would score a quick 29-yard touchdown at the hands of a Chase Claypool reception. The Browns would then have possession for a majority of the quarter totaling a six minute plus drive in which they would score a field goal.
With the score being 45-29, the Steelers were down by two possessions with four minutes and 28 seconds left to play. A possible comeback for the black and gold was shutdown by Browns lineacker Sione Takitaki as he forced the fourth interception on the game for Rothlisburger. This would ultimately seal it for the Browns and they would go on to win their first playoff game since 1994 when Bill Bellicheck was the head coach.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin faced questions during the post-game press conference about his decision to punt on the first play of the fourth quarter facing a fourth and one on the Steelers 46-yard line with the momentum in their favour. “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."
Baker Mayfield played a solid game with 21 of 34 for 263 and three touchdowns. A Browns offensive line that was staggered with injuries and COVID-19 cases played outstanding. The Browns defence took advantage of a porous Steelers offence and forced five total turnovers.
Pittsburgh wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster referred to the Browns earlier in the week as “nameless gray faces” and the same team they have played in previous seasons when they were not the greatest. With Smith-Schuster additionally saying “the Browns is the Browns,” many players on Cleveland took exception to this comment such as defensive end Myles Garrett. “We’re the Cleveland Browns, same old Cleveland Browns,” Garret said with a smirk.
Cleveland will be taking on the reigning Super Bowl champions Kansas City in the divisional round in which they are looking to continue to make history by winning a divisional playoff game for the first time since 1990.
The Steelers are heading into the offseason with many questions surrounding their offence, players hitting free agency, and possible retirement of franchise players such as Roethlisberger and Pouncey.