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Steelers vs. Browns score: Cleveland dominates early, stuns Pittsburgh for first playoff win since 1994
Even without their head coach, the Browns came up big in Steel City
Plenty of people figured that Sunday night's rematch between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers might be one-sided. Few expected the Browns to be the ones delivering the beat-down. The tone was set from the very beginning in the final matchup of Super Wild-Card Weekend, with Ben Roethlisberger failing to corral a wayward snap on the first play from scrimmage and the Browns scooping it up for a score. Cleveland then proceeded to own the momentum for the duration of the first half, capitalizing on three Roethlisberger interceptions to build a stunning 28-point lead. The Steelers showed plenty of life down the stretch, pulling within two scores and threatening a comeback thanks to a Big Ben resurgence, but by then, it was too little, too late, and Cleveland sealed its first playoff victory since 1994 with a 48-37 decision.
The Steelers came into Sunday night's affair with history on their side; they have consistently taken care of business against the Browns at home, including earlier this season with a 38-7 rout of Cleveland. But almost nothing went their way early on in their latest showdown with the Browns, who deflected two passes for picks, neutered every other piece of the Steelers' offensive attack, and embraced the chance to let Baker Mayfield play it cool and lean on the battering duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Even later in the matchup, when Roethlisberger definitely turned it up a notch and started finding JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool for important gains, so much of Pittsburgh's production felt nestled in garbage time.
A fourth Browns interception late in the fourth quarter sealed the deal for Cleveland, which hadn't made the postseason prior to Sunday night since 2002, ensuring the Browns a trip to face the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs in the Divisional Round -- all after upsetting their AFC North rivals without the help of their head coach, All-Pro left guard, No. 1 wide receiver and top two cornerbacks. In other words, Sunday night was a tremendous one for the longtime AFC North cellar-dwellers.
Here's a full breakdown of what transpired on Sunday night.
Why the Browns won
The Browns played exceptional complementary football. Their defense forced turnovers, and their offense mostly capitalized on them. And after the Browns' defense started the fourth quarter with a punt, Chubb and the Browns offense extended their lead. After the Steelers responded with a quick touchdown, the Browns' offense scored a pivotal three points before kicking another field goal after Roethlisberger's fourth interception of the night.
The Browns' offensive line played a big role in Cleveland's first playoff win in 26 years. A shout out is in order for Michael Dunn, who filled in admirably for Pro Bowler Joel Bitonio. Rookie Jedrick Wills also played exceptional ball in his playoff debut, as he was part of a line that did not allow a single sack of Mayfield. That is significant considering that the Steelers have led or tied for the league lead in sacks four years running.
Why the Steelers lost
Pittsburgh, the team that practiced all week, came out completely flat against a Cleveland team that spent most of the week practicing virtually. On offense, the Steelers committed four first-half turnovers that the Browns turned into 21 points. Three of those turnovers were interceptions by Roethlisberger, whose fourth interception set up the Browns' final points of the night. Roethlisberger, in defeat, threw for 501 yards and four touchdowns. Smith-Schuster caught 13 passes for 157 yards and a score, while Diontae Johnson caught 11 passes for 117 yards in his playoff debut.
Pittsburgh's defense, a unit that forced at least one turnover in 10 of its first 11 games, failed to record a turnover for the fourth time in its last six games and the second straight game against Cleveland. Without Joe Haden, the Steelers' secondary was picked apart by Mayfield, who became the first quarterback since Vinny Testaverde to lead the Browns to a playoff win.
Down 35-10 at the intermission, the Steelers scored two touchdowns and forced three punts in the third quarter. They had a fourth-and-one at their own 46-yard-line at the start of the fourth quarter. But instead of going for it, Pittsburgh tried to draw Cleveland offsides before Jordan Berry's punt sailed into the end zone. The Browns took full advantage of the Steelers' conservative decision. Six plays after Berry's punt, Cleveland extended its lead to 42-23 after Chubb took Mayfield's second-down screen pass 40 yards to pay dirt.
Play of the game
The Browns have many candidates, but the game's best play goes to Chubb, whose touchdown reception off a screen pass quelled Pittsburgh's momentum while giving his team a 19-point lead less than three minutes into the fourth quarter.
"We had Michael Dunn step in at left guard for Joel Bitonio. And then, Michael got hurt and a guy named Blake [Hance], that I introduced myself to literally in the locker room before the game stepped up in the fourth quarter." — Mayfield to NBC Sports when asked about his success behind Cleveland's re-tooled offensive line.
The Browns are onto Kansas City, where they'll face Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the defending champions. The Browns will have Kevin Stefanski back on the sideline, who enjoyed Sunday night's game from the comfort of his basement. Pittsburgh will begin what could be an interesting offseason, as the Steelers have several notable free agents that include Smith-Schuster, James Conner and Bud Dupree, among others.
Ben Roethlisberger now has thrown a playoff-career high four interceptions. The Browns can now pad onto their lead.
That Browns FG likely put the game away. Steelers need two touchdowns and two two-point conversions in four minutes.
How easy is this game for Baker Mayfield? He's smiling after completing a pass to Jarvis Landry, who manhandled an outmatched Robert Spillane for the first down.
The Browns have scored 40+ points in an NFL playoff game for the 2nd time in franchise history— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 11, 2021
The other instance was the 1954 NFL Championship, when Otto Graham accounted for 6 total TD in a 56-10 win over the Lions
Cleveland's offensive line, especially the left side, deserves game ball for how well they've played tonight. Credit to Chubb for finding the holes, but the Browns are blowing a talented Steelers' D-line off the ball.
What a connection between Ben Roethlisberger and Chase Claypool for the 29-yard TD strike. Ben just zipping it around in this second half. If the Browns can't stop the Steelers, they're going to need at least one more extended drive to ice this one away.
Great call by the Browns on Chubbs' touchdown off the screen pass. Steelers blitzed, Mayfield held the ball as long as he had to, dumped it to a wide open Chubb, the rest is history.
Racking my brain and that might be the worst play call of Mike Tomlin's career.— ryan wilson (@ryanwilsonCBS) January 11, 2021
4th and 1 at midfield and Tomlin opts to punt the ball down 12 points with 15 minutes to go. It sails into the endzone. They gain 30 yards of field position. They needed just ONE yard to get the first down and keep the drive going.— Dan Schneier (@DanSchneierNFL) January 11, 2021
If #Browns now score here, game over. You lose.
Really questionable call by the Steelers. Fourth and one, they tried to get the Browns to jump, then got a flag for delay, and are now punting. Berry then proceeds to kick it into the end zone.
I'd call Diontae Johnson's or Vance McDonald's number. With the focus on JuJu, Johnson has the second-best hands on the team. McDonald is also a sure-handed pass-catcher who the Browns likely wouldn't suspect.
JuJu clearly playing through some pain. Got up gingerly after the last two receptions. Steelers have the end of quarter TO to discuss what they're going to do on fourth down. You have to think they're going to go for it.
Steelers' ascent here has been coupled with the Browns' sudden inability to move the ball. To be fair, a lot of Cleveland's early success came off Pittsburgh turnovers. Now that Ben is holding onto the ball, it's a different story ...
Steven Nelson missed a pick-six on third down. Nevertheless, the Browns forced to punt, and it's not a good punt. Steelers have it at their own 37. Cleveland has gone conservative: run on first down, run on second down, incomplete on third down.
JuJu hangs onto Big Ben's fourth down pass, as Steelers make it a 12-point game. Browns went conservative on that last drive. I'd expect them to pick up their tempo on this drive. Run a play-acton and get Baker on the outside.
35-24 in the 4th quarter is "please rip my stomach out before it leaps from my body" territory for Browns fans.— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 11, 2021
Ben Roethlisberger has certainly turned a corner in this second half. Getting the ball out quickly. Floating it deep. JuJu Smith-Schuster with a nice route down the field to put Pittsburgh in scoring range.
Steelers definitely chipping away here, on both sides of the ball. Baker Mayfield fails to connect on a couple of throws to give Pittsburgh another possession pretty quickly. The big question here is whether there's enough time for the Steelers to overcome this deficit. Ben looks sharper, but he's going to need a big-play break or two to really cut into the Browns' lead.
Roethlisberger connects with Ebron, but Steelers miss the two-point try. They trail 35-16 with 7:22 left. A positive besides the score is how fast the Steelers scored: took 3:45 to move 64 yards in eight plays. No runs, which is good for Pittsburgh considering they can't run. This won't be a game, though, until the Steelers' defense can force a semi-fast punt. The Browns can help themselves here by running the ball, picking up some short third downs and eating more clock.
Browns don't score on their opening drive of the half, but they did get to midfield while taking four minutes off the clock. With a 28-7 lead, that's good enough. Not sure why the Browns threw on first down near the end of that drive, I'd continue to run until the Steelers show they can stop it.
The Browns have their share of key players out, but the Steelers' loss of Joe Haden, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree really showed in that first half. On offense, Pittsburgh is devoid of the playmakers that helped them make the playoffs four straight years from 2014-17. Will likely be the last 30 minutes as Steelers for Smith-Schuster, Conner, and Villanueva, and possibly more.
Steelers make it 35-10 at halftime, but Browns get the ball to start the second half. And based on how the Browns' offense finished the half, the Steelers don't have any answers for Cleveland's offense.
That could be the game right there. Steelers get their first TD, Browns go right back down the field to take a 35-7 lead. Browns took full advantage of Cassius Marsh, who replaced Alex Highsmith at OLB. Mayfield picks up a big first down with his legs, then hits Austin Hooper for the TD.
Baker Mayfield takes a big shot by Minkah Fitzpatrick but able to get the first down. Tomlin said that stopping Mayfield's mobility was going to be key. That's Mayfield's first carry tonight.
Steelers hit pay dirt with James Conner's touchdown. Steelers don't worry about hurrying; they settled down and were content on putting one scoring drive together before intermission. Browns still have two timeouts and 1:44 to play with.