After nearly two decades of dysfunction, bad draft picks and coaching and front-office changes, the NFL's longest playoff drought is over.
The Cleveland Browns are back in the postseason, qualifying for the first time since 2002 on Sunday by surviving a late Pittsburgh rally for a 24-22 win over the Steelers, who rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and several other starters.
The Browns (11-5) nearly blew a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, but stopped Pittsburgh's 2-point conversion attempt and then recovered an onside kick with 1:22 left to hold on.
A week of COVID-19 disruptions concluded in celebration as the Browns ended what had been the NFL's longest postseason drought. Their reward: Another game against the AFC North champion Steelers, in Pittsburgh next weekend.
“We're in the dance,” said first-year coach Kevin Stefanski. “But we've got a lot of work to do.”
Nick Chubb had a touchdown run, Baker Mayfield threw a TD pass — and had several critical runs in the second half — and the Browns hung on as Mason Rudolph brought back the Steelers (12-4), who had the luxury of sitting their best players after clinching the division last week.
Instead of Roethlisberger, who is 23-2-1 in his career against the Browns, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin started Rudolph in the regular-season finale. Big Ben will be back for the playoffs.
Rudolph's 2-yard TD pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 1:23 left pulled the Steelers within 24-22. But Rudolph badly overthrew rookie Chase Claypool on the 2-point attempt, and Browns tight end Stephen Carlson then fell on the ensuing kick under a pile of bodies.
The Browns only had to run out the clock and Mayfield, who earlier had a key 28-yard run, scampered for 3 yards on 3rd-and-2 with 1:10 left.
“It's a moment I'll never forget,” Mayfield said. “But we're not satisfied. We expected to be here.”
Before the scoreboard clock in FirstEnergy Stadium ran off its final seconds, most of the 12,000 fans — there were some Terrible Towel wavers — cheered wildly and Browns players danced onto the field.
“This is what we imagined,” said defensive star Myles Garrett.
The win completes a grueling turnaround for the Browns and their passionate fan base. The team's last playoff visit was 197 losses, 14 double-digit-loss seasons and seven coaches ago.
Stefanski has not only navigated the Browns through COVID-19 issues, he's got them back in the Super Bowl tournament.
The Browns barely practiced this week because of COVID-19 positive tests and protocols and went into their most important game in years without six players, including top cornerback Denzel Ward, and three assistant coaches.
Along with Roethlisberger, defensive star T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Maurkice Pouncey didn't make the trip to Cleveland. The Steelers were also missing cornerback Joe Haden, who tested positive for COVID-19 and may have to miss the playoff game.
The Browns were clinging to a 10-9 lead in the third quarter when Rudolph, under extreme pressure, floated a pass across the field that was intercepted by reserve cornerback M.J. Stewart.
Cleveland capitalized on the turnover with wide receive Jarvis Landry taking an inside handoff and scoring on a 3-yard run to put the Browns up 24-9. Landry, forced to sit out the first game of his career as a COVID-19 close contact, celebrated his score by rifling the ball against the padded end zone wall.
Chubb's 47-yard touchdown run on Cleveland's first series made it look like the Browns might be on their way to a comfortable win.
But nothing is ever easy for the Browns, and after their offense bogged down, the Steelers got two field goals by backup Matthew Wright to close within 10-6 at halftime.
Rudolph passed for a career-high 315 yards and two touchdowns, but found no solace in playing well.
“A backup quarterback in this league, you don’t get many opportunities,” he said. “I didn’t care who it was. ... Obviously you want to win the ballgame.”
Garrett and Rudolph barely crossed paths — until after the game.
It was their first meeting in Cleveland since Garrett tore off Rudolph's helmet and hit him with it, one of the ugliest on-field incidents in recent NFL history that led to a suspension for Garrett.
“I just told him, ‘Good game, and see you all in a week,’” Garrett said.
“I told him good luck,” Rudolph said. “A lot of respect for him.”
NICK OF TIME
Chubb went over 1,000 yards for the second straight season in style. His 47-yard TD pushed the Pro Bowler into quadruple digits despite him missing four games with a sprained right knee.
Steelers: None reported.
Browns: DE Olivier Vernon suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter. Vernon didn't put any weight on his leg while being assisted to the medical tent. He was carted to the locker room. ... Rookie WR/PR Donovan Peoples-Jones suffered a concussion late in the first half while jumping to make a catch and getting drilled by safety Sean Davis.
Browns: Back to Pittsburgh, where they lost 38-7 in October. Cleveland's previous playoff game was also in Pittsburgh, a heartbreaking 36-33 loss in '02.
Steelers: Will be back at full strength for their first playoff appearance since the 2017 season.
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