CLEVELAND — The ghosts of Hue Jackson, Freddie Kitchens, Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel, to name just a few, floated away Sunday on the lakefront.
Nick Chubb got the spirits stirring with a 47-yard touchdown run of determination on the Browns’ first drive. M.J. Stewart Jr.’s interception and 30-yard return provided a jolt, as did Jarvis Landry’s 3-yard touchdown run to open the fourth quarter. But the phantoms weren’t officially driven away until Mason Rudolph’s 2-point conversion throw to tie sailed high and Baker Mayfield’s keeper around right end sealed the 24-22 victory over the Steelers.
The drought, the longest in the NFL, is over. The Browns are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
“We are living a dream right now,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “To see these guys that have been here and have gone through everything and to see the smiles on their faces and the sense of relief for them is great.”
The bitter rivals will meet again next week in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field in the first round of the playoffs. The NFL scheduled them for Sunday night at 8:15, the last of the weekend’s six games.
The Steelers (12-4) are the AFC’s No. 3 seed as AFC North champion. The Browns (11-5) are the sixth seed. The Steelers won the two previous postseason meetings, after the 1994 and 2002 seasons.
For the 17 seasons that followed, the Browns experienced almost nothing but misery.
They lost 197 games between clinching playoff spots and had 14 double-digit-loss seasons.
Seven coaches came and went without a playoff appearance, including Jackson, who won one game over a two-year span. Kevin Stefanski broke the trend in his first season.
Twenty-four quarterbacks started games after the Tim Couch-Kelly Holcomb tandem of 2002, including Manziel, who had all the charisma but none of the commitment. None led the Browns back to the postseason until Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in 2018.
A lot of demons were exorcised when the Browns bounced back from a loss for the fifth time this season. Every loss was followed by a win the following game.
None as important as this one.
“It’s a moment I’ll definitely never forget,” Mayfield said of running off the field. “I’ll start by saying the cliché thing but I truly do mean this and everybody in our locker room does mean it: We’re not satisfied. We expected to be here. We’ve worked extremely hard to be here. And we’re excited to have the chance to be in the playoffs.
“The energy in the stadium, they’re playing ‘Cleveland Rocks.’”
He mentioned former franchise quarterbacks Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar were in the “old-school” highlights being played for the 12,000 fans allowed to attend during the pandemic.
“For it to be that loud with a limited amount of fans, it’s a special moment for us,” Mayfield said.
From Stefanski to Mayfield to defensive end Myles Garrett, they celebrated the fans who’ve stuck with the team despite having their hearts broken too many times to count. Some still savor the last championship in 1964. Some cling to memories of the Kardiac Kids and the near-misses of the Kosar-led teams in the second half of the 1980s. Some have never experienced the playoffs.
“We are just paying them back for all of the time and the effort they have invested, just like us,” Garrett said. “It is a pleasure to finally really show them what they are doing is appreciated.”
Garrett was the No. 1 pick in 2017 and immediately lived through the second 0-16 season in NFL history. Mayfield came a year later, and they’ve been driven to lead the turnaround.
“This is what we imagined,” Garrett said. “This is what we have been trying to do all along. Now we are just trying to make it something that is year to year.”
Stefanski gave a game ball to Joel Bitonio, the Pro Bowl left guard who arrived in 2014, kept his head down and his chin up and came out the other side. Stefanski also mentioned the longtime employees before handing a game ball to Jimmy Haslam, who bought the team in 2012.
Then Stefanski asked the players for more.
“There is work left to be done,” he said. “The goal was never just to make the playoffs.”
“You got more in you?”
“Good, because I’m going to need it.” pic.twitter.com/SFDYji9QNF
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 3, 2021
The rematch with the Steelers is next. The recent history isn’t pretty, but the short-handed Browns — six players and three assistant coaches were out because of COVID-19 — bucked some trends Sunday against the undermanned Steelers, who rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, outside linebacker T.J. Watt, defensive lineman Cam Heyward and center Maurkice Pouncey.
The Browns snapped a string of 12 straight losses to the Steelers in finales, which were usually followed by a coach being fired. They improved to 8-36-1 against the Steelers since 1999 and dropped Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to 22-5-1 in the series. Rudolph is 0-2, while Roethlisberger is 23-2-1 against the Browns.
“We know what the Steelers are all about,” Mayfield said. “It is going to be a physical game just like tonight was.”
Mayfield threw for 196 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown to tight end Austin Hooper, and rushed six times for 44 yards. Nick Chubb ran for 108 yards on 14 carries, exploding for the touchdown to start the scoring in which he ran through safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The Browns led 10-0 in the first half and 24-9 after one play in the fourth quarter but had the fans reaching for the Tums when the Steelers scored twice and had a 2-point conversion to tie with 1:23 left. Rudolph’s throw sailed high, the Browns recovered the onside kick and Mayfield ran for a first down on third-and-2 to seal the win.
The weight of 17 seasons without a trip to the playoffs had been lifted. Or had it?
“It’s not off yet,” Garrett said. “Everybody likes getting a ticket to the dance, but if you want to dance with the pretty girl, it means you’ve got to make it to the end. We know where we’re trying to go.”
The Browns won 11 games for the seventh time in history. They’re the most for a first-year coach since Paul Brown founded the organization and won 12 in 1946. Stefanski’s .688 winning percentage is the best for a new Browns coach since Blanton Collier went 10-4 (.714) in 1963.
Even the even-keel Stefanski said he’d take a few hours to enjoy the achievement.
“All of these wins, you savor them,” he said. “We will make sure to do that before the clock strikes midnight, and then we are on to the next one.
“I will be with my family. I will sit there on the couch and have the TV watch me, and I will have a drink the size of your head.”