TOP FIVE MOMENTS
A long time coming
The previous playoff win came Jan. 1, 1995, with Bill Belichick as coach. The last road playoff win was Dec. 28, 1969, with Bill Nelsen at quarterback.
Neither of those came against the rival Steelers, which is why the 48-37 victory at Heinz Field in the wild card round was the most special for the franchise in at least 30 years. The upset was thrilling from the start, as safety Karl Joseph recovered a high snap in the end zone on the first play. Three more touchdowns followed in the first quarter, along with four more takeaways for the game.
The Browns overcame a week of disruption, with two practices canceled after coach Kevin Stefanski, four members of his staff and three players, including Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio, tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the game. The win felt like a cleansing for the organization and the city.
Win and in
Too many seasons have ended with losses to Pittsburgh and then the coach, and sometimes general manager, being fired. So a home win in the finale to send the Browns to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 was a welcome change.
It didn’t come easy, even with the Steelers resting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and other stars, but got the Browns to 11-5 in Stefanski’s first season and locked up a wild card spot.
Baker Mayfield’s turnaround kicked into high gear after the bye week, but the five-touchdown, come-from-behind win in Cincinnati in Week 7 was a sign of great things to come. After throwing an interception on his first pass — receiver Odell Beckham Jr. tore his anterior cruciate ligament trying to make a tackle — and starting 0-for-5, Mayfield bounced back to complete 21 straight passes before a spike to stop the clock. He led a winning 75-yard drive that ended with a 24-yard touchdown to rookie receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones with 11 seconds left.
The win was needed after a 38-7 loss in Pittsburgh the previous week.
The battle on the ground never materialized against the Titans. Instead, Stefanski’s plan was to throw early and often against Tennessee’s suspect pass defense. It worked to perfection, as Mayfield threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns and the Browns took a 38-7 lead at halftime. They hung on for a 41-35 win that proved they could hold their own against a proven playoff team on the road.
Odell has a day
The 49-38 win over the Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, showed what the offense can look like with a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. dominating. He opened with a 37-yard touchdown catch on a pass from fellow receiver and best friend Jarvis Landry, sealed the victory with an electrifying 50-yard touchdown run on an end-around and totaled seven touches for 154 yards and three TDs.
Honorable mention: Nick Chubb passed up a touchdown by stepping out of bounds to finish off a win over the Texans. Chubb and Kareem Hunt rushed for 100 yards apiece in the win over Houston, a first for the Browns since Leroy Kelly and Ernie Green in 1966.
BOTTOM FIVE MOMENTS
Three that got away
With Patrick Mahomes in the locker room after sustaining a concussion midway through the third quarter, the Browns had a golden opportunity to rally to beat the Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs. They got within 22-17 but couldn’t make a winning play in the final eight minutes.
The first of three wasted chances came on offense in what turned out to be their final possession of the season. The Browns picked up a first down, blew a timeout, then punted after picking up 2 yards on third-and-11. Right guard Wyatt Teller was beat by defensive tackle Chris Jones, forcing Mayfield to swing the ball to Hunt. The intention was a throw down the field, but he didn’t have time.
After the punt, a Myles Garrett sack put the Chiefs in third-and-14 at the two-minute warning. But 35-year-old journeyman Chad Henne scrambled for 13 yards, then threw an easy fourth-and-1 completion to Tyreek Hill to ice the game. The Browns will regret not capitalizing for a long time.
For months this Week 16 matchup was viewed as a gimme. Then linebacker B.J. Goodson tested positive for COVID-19 the day before the game, and receivers Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge and linebacker Jacob Phillips were identified as high-risk close contacts. On short notice the Browns were shorthanded.
They could’ve still overcome against the Jets, who finished 2-14, but the defense had three breakdowns and Mayfield fumbled three times, including on a fourth-down sneak at the end. The 23-16 loss cost the Browns a chance to clinch a playoff spot and eventually hurt their playoff seeding. The team’s COVID issues continued through the first round of the playoffs.
Beat at own game
The Raiders play in a dome in the desert. They showed the Browns how to handle the slop at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Browns headed into the bye with a clunker, falling 16-6 to Las Vegas. In a day of wind, rain, sleet, hail and snow, the Raiders dominated on the ground. The Browns defense couldn’t get off the field, and the offense couldn’t sustain drives. The Browns thought they were built for this type of game, and the loss refocused them for the run over the second half of the season.
The wonderful season was hard to imagine when the Browns lost 38-6 at Baltimore in the opener, then 38-7 at Pittsburgh in Week 6. But Stefanski’s calm and steady approach helped the Browns absorb the defeats and quickly rebound. The team didn’t lose two in a row all season, showing impressive resilience.
The same was true of Mayfield, who threw a pick-six on his first pass against the Steelers but finished the year on a streak of 20 touchdowns to two interceptions.
The Browns caught a break when Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson exited in the second half with what he insisted were cramps. The luck ran out when Jackson returned from the locker room to replace injured backup Trace McSorley.
Jackson threw a 44-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-5 on his first play then led the winning field goal drive in the final minute.
Honorable mention: Beckham’s torn ACL deprived him of the chance to play a whole year for the Browns completely healthy. Landry missed the first game of his seven-year career when he was deemed a close contact. Bitonio missed the first playoff game of his career due to COVID.