They had to sweat for it, but the Browns clinched a playoff berth after defeating the visiting Steelers on Sunday, 24-22. The Browns, under first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, are in the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Cleveland and Pittsburgh will play again next week, this time at Heinz Field in the AFC wild card round.
Cleveland won its first Week 17 game since 2009 after building a 24-9 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. The Browns then withstood two late touchdown passes from Mason Rudolph, who played in place of a resting Ben Roethlisberger. Down by two points, Rudolph's pass on a two-point attempt sailed over the head of Chase Claypool. The Browns then recovered the onside kick before Mayfield's three-yard run on third-and-two iced the game.
The Browns won despite giving up 315 passing yards from Rudolph, who started for the first time this season and for just the second time since losing in Cleveland in Week 10 of the 2019 season. Cleveland's offense was powered by a running game that churned out 192 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries.
Browns' new goal
The Browns are postseason bound for the first time since the franchise's fourth season back in the NFL, when former No. 1 overall pick Tim Couch guided the Browns to a 9-7 regular season. Cleveland will now begin its pursuit of its first postseason win since 1994, when Bill Belichick's team defeated Bill Parcells' Patriots in the wild card round.
The Steelers, despite losing four out of their last five games, won the AFC North division with a 12-4 record. Pittsburgh is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017. They are in search of their first postseason win since 2016, when they won two playoff games before losing to New England one game shy of the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh is 2-0 against Cleveland in the postseason. The Steelers bested the Browns 29-9 in the 1994 divisional round. Eight years later, the Browns built a 24-7 lead before Tommy Maddox railed Pittsburgh to a 36-33 win.
Early lead behind Chubb
Key blocks by Austin Hooper and Jack Conklin sprung Nick Chubb free on a 47-yard touchdown run on the Browns' first possession. Cleveland extended its lead to 10-0 in the second quarter before a 41-yard catch by Diontae Johnson set up Matthew Wright's 29-yard field goal. A 26-yard completion from Rudolph to JuJu Smith-Schuster set up Wright's 46-yard field goal just before halftime.
A 41-yard catch by Chase Claypool set up Wright's third field goal — another 46-yarder -- midway through the third quarter. The Browns' offense responded on their ensuing possession. Mayfield's 14-yard completion to David Njoku on third-and-five, along with his 28-yard run on the next play, set up his two-yard touchdown pass to Austin Hooper.
Down 17-9, the Steelers were driving before M.J. Stewart picked off Rudolph, who was locked in on Smith-Schuster on a third-and-nine play. The Browns scored four plays later, as Jarvis Landry found paydirt on a jet sweep on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh showed its resolve on its next drive, with Rudolph connecting with Claypool on a 28-yard scoring strike. The Steelers' defense then gave the offense the ball back with four minutes left after the Mayfield misfired on fourth-and-seven on their own 35-yard line. A Stephon Tuitt sack of Mayfield took the Browns out of field goal range.
Rudolph took advantage of the stop, as he hit Johnson on a 47-yard bomb between two Browns defenders. Rudolph then hit Smith-Schuster for a two-yard score before his two-point pass to tie the score sailed over Claypool's head.