CLEVELAND — Long after the game had finally ended, fans hung around FirstEnergy Stadium, taking selfies and photos of one another with the field in the background. This was a moment they’d been waiting for since the 2002 season.
Sunday, the Browns finally ended the NFL’s longest playoff drought with a 24-22 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, catapulting Cleveland into the postseason for the first time in 17 seasons.
“I’m really just happy for our fans,” said first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski. “They deserve this. And we’re happy to deliver this to them.”
The moment, however, didn’t come easily.
Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph tossed a touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 1:26 remaining to put the Steelers within two points of tying the score. Rudolph’s two-point attempt, however, sailed over the head of Chase Claypool.
Browns tight end Stephen Carlson then recovered Pittsburgh’s onside try, and quarterback Baker Mayfield dove for a first down to seal the win. Mayfield immediately jumped up and threw his fist with everything he had, before the crowd, restricted to 12,000 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, jumped around as “House of Pain” blared through the stadium speakers.
Mayfield, who three years ago at the NFL combine declared he could be the quarterback to finally turn the Browns around, was the last player to leave the field. He blew a kiss to the fans with both hands while exiting through the tunnel.
“It’s a moment I’ll definitely never forget,” Mayfield said. “The feeling of walking off the field, the energy in the stadium, they’re playing ‘Cleveland Rocks’ … for it to be that loud with a limited amount of fans, it was a special moment for us.”
Cleveland’s victory sets up a first-round rematch with the Steelers next weekend in Pittsburgh. Cleveland’s only other playoff appearance this century also came in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers won 36-33.
“We’re not satisfied,” Mayfield said. “We expected to be here. We worked extremely hard to get here and we’re excited to have the chance to be in the playoffs.”
The Browns prevailed in Sunday’s make-or-break showdown against the Steelers, despite battling issues related to COVID-19 all week.
Cleveland had to shut down its practice facility four times in the past eight days, and was forced to cancel practice Thursday while conducting contact tracing. Friday, the Browns weren’t even allowed to use their locker room, as the equipment staff turned the indoor fieldhouse into a makeshift dressing area before practice.
In the last week, linebacker B.J. Goodson, tight end Harrison Bryant, linebacker Malcolm Smith, safety Andrew Sendejo and cornerback Denzel Ward — all starters — tested positive for the virus, knocking them out of Sunday’s game. The Browns were also without offensive assistant coaches Chad O’Shea and Bill Callahan, due to COVID-19 protocols, as well.
But against the Steelers, who rested several key players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, having already clinched the AFC North Division, the Browns did just enough to hold on for the win.
Nick Chubb and Jarvis Landry rushed for touchdowns, and Mayfield connected with tight end Austin Hooper for a 2-yard score late in the third quarter. The Browns, however, couldn’t put Pittsburgh away until the very end, as Rudolph passed for a game-high 315 yards and two touchdowns.
“[We] batted adversity through the week,” Stefanski said, “and through the game.”
The last time Cleveland made the playoffs, Stefanski, 38, was an honorable mention All-Ivy League safety for Penn. Mayfield and defensive end Myles Garrett, Cleveland’s back-to-back No. 1 overall picks from 2017 and 2018, were in grade school.
“There are so many Browns [fans] all over the world who were so happy to see us get this win,” Garrett said. “Finally get into the dance.”
After the game, Garrett sought out Rudolph near the Steelers’ tunnel. The two had not spoken since Garrett swung a helmet at Rudolph’s head, resulting in a season-ending suspension. Garrett later accused Rudolph of inciting him with a racial slur, which Rudolph repeatedly has denied. Though the incident cast a pall over last year’s meeting, it was barely a footnote during the game Sunday.
“I just told him good game, told him he played a hell of a game and we’ll see y’all in a week,” Garrett said of the exchange, which Rudolph confirmed afterward, as well. “He did well and was able to make some big plays for them.”
Rudolph posted a picture of him and Garrett on Instagram with the caption “Onward And Upward” after the game.
To keep its season going, Cleveland will have to vanquish another ignominious streak. The Browns have lost 17 straight games in Pittsburgh — the third-longest road losing streak, according to Elias, against a single opponent in NFL history.
The Steelers also eliminated Cleveland from its previous two playoff appearances, in 2002 and also in 1994, when Bill Belichick coached the Browns.
“We’re in the dance,” Stefanski said. “But we have a lot of work to do. We want to keep this thing going.”