By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) — So much for the weight of history. Or practicing. Or having your head coach on the sideline. Or an emotional leader on the field.
The Cleveland Browns overcame all of it. The burden of carrying the mantle of a franchise that’s long been a punchline. A schedule ravaged by a COVID-19 outbreak. A rival that for years has treated them like a harmless little brother.
All of that’s over. For now. And maybe for good.
The Browns dismantled the Pittsburgh Steelers 48-37 in the wild-card round Sunday night, picking up the franchise’s first postseason victory in more than a quarter-century and earning a trip to Kansas City next Sunday to face the defending Super Bowl champions.
“We believe in the people in the room no matter what’s going on,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “We knew that everybody was counting us out. There was no extra pressure or anything. No one believed in us besides us.”
Playing with first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and top cornerback Denzel Ward back in Cleveland after all tested positive for COVID-19, Cleveland (12-5) raced to the biggest first half by a road team in NFL playoff history then held on.
Mayfield threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns, including a screen pass that Nick Chubb turned into a 40-yard score that halted Pittsburgh’s momentum after the Steelers pulled within 12. Kareem Hunt added 48 yards and two TDs on the ground while Cleveland’s defense forced five turnovers to hand the Steelers (12-5) a staggering loss.
The victory was the Browns’ first postseason triumph of any kind since beating New England on New Year’s Day 1995 — three months before Mayfield was born — and their first playoff win on the road since Dec. 28, 1969.
The significance wasn’t lost on special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, a Cleveland native who found himself filling in when Stefanski tested positive for COVID-19.
“I grew up (a Browns fan), so I know what this means,” Priefer said.
Cleveland did it despite practicing just once over the last two weeks and having lost 17 straight at Heinz Field. The Browns did it with efficiency and swagger. And they did it with Priefer at the controls and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt taking over the play-calling duties as Stefanski watched in his basement back in Ohio.
“We have a resilient team,” Mayfield said. “Defense played great in the first half and we kind of stalled out and let them climb back in the game, but that’s a great team win right there — guys stepping up all over the board. I’m proud of these guys.”
The Steelers certainly helped, ending a season in which they started 11-0 with a thud that could reverberate for years. Ben Roethlisberger ended his comeback season by throwing for 501 yards on an NFL-record 47 completions with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
“I don’t have any magical answers,” Roethlisberger said. “We just didn’t put it together. Tonight, the glaring issues is we turned the ball over.”
And over. And over. And the NFL’s third-ranked defense could do little to stem the tide. The Steelers led the NFL in sacks but failed to get to Mayfield. Cleveland’s 48 points were the most Pittsburgh has given up in the playoffs, surpassing the 45 to Jacksonville in the 2017 playoffs.
Pittsburgh’s problems started on the first play from scrimmage when center Maurkice Pouncey’s snap sailed by Roethlisberger into the end zone. Cleveland’s Karl Joseph fell on it for a touchdown. Roethlisberger threw three first-half interceptions, two of which led directly to Browns scores.
By the time the Steelers found their footing, they were down 28-0. Even when they did get it going on a 1-yard touchdown run by James Conner with 1:44 to go in the half, the Browns stormed right back. Mayfield capped a cathartic opening half with a masterful 64-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard toss to Austin Hooper with 34 seconds remaining. Pittsburgh countered with a field goal in the closing seconds but trailed 35-10 at the break.
Pittsburgh tried to claw back in it. The Steelers pulled within 35-23 at the end of the third quarter. Facing fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 46 on the first play of the fourth, Tomlin opted to punt.
“I wanted to pin them down and maybe provide a short field for their offense,” Tomlin said. “I just wanted to keep the momentum going in terms of field positioning.”
It didn’t work out. The kick bounced into the end zone for a touchback and Mayfield calmly took Cleveland 80 yards in six plays. The sideline erupted as Chubb streaked into the end zone.
So much for the Browns being the Browns, a winking assessment Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster made about Cleveland in the middle of the week. Regardless of the intent — Smith-Schuster said after the game he didn’t regret it — Mayfield and All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett took it to heart.
Then, in front of a mostly empty stadium and a national audience so accustomed to seeing them stumble, the Browns, who didn’t win a game in Garrett’s first season, took out their frustration by landing one haymaker after another.
“We’re the Cleveland Browns,” Garrett said with a smirk. “Same old Cleveland Browns.”
Not so much anymore.
Browns: All-Pro tackle Jack Conklin was cleared to play after being listed as questionable with an “illness” on Friday. His return didn’t last long. He exited in the first half with a hamstring injury. Guard Michael Dunn, stepping in for Bitonio, left in the fourth quarter with a calf issue.
Steelers: Rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith sustained a high ankle sprain in the second half and did not return.
Browns: Will make their first divisional-round appearance since the 1994 playoffs when they face the Chiefs.
Steelers: Head into what will be a busy offseason. Several high-profile players, including Smith-Schuster and outside linebacker Bud Dupree, will become free agents. The 38-year-old Roethlisberger will also have to decide whether he wants to return for an 18th season.