The Washington Post
Role reversal: The Browns dominate the Steelers for a rare January win.
BROWNS 48, STEELERS 37
pittsburgh — The Cleveland Browns have experienced many nightmares like Sunday night’s first quarter, plenty of them against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Finally, it happened to the other team. The bully showed up to take their lunch money, except he was wearing his underwear over his pants, and then he fell down a manhole into a pit of mousetraps atop a pile of Whoopee cushions, which were covered in poison ivy.
The Browns’ 48-37 first-round playoff victory over the Steelers both redefined how poorly an NFL team 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 barely more than 13 minutes. The AFC North champions, the third seed, the legacy franchise that won its first 11 games, was rendered a slow-motion car wreck.
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. They had not been to the playoffs since the 2002 season, 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, a team that was outscored by its opponents this season, manhandled the franchise that tormented it for decades.
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 (Jan. 1, 1995), they 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, who owns the most unusual 1-0 record in NFL history.
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 own 46-yard line. Quarterback Baker 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 felt tenuous again.
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 Conner attempted to cover the ball without rolling into the end zone for a safety, and instead he missed it altogether.
Browns defensive end Myles 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, Pittsburgh trailed 7-0, stood on its own 46-yard line and had seen its offense turn the ball over twice. The defense 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 own 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 wove 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 Conner 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 26 years in the making.