The Browns grew up Sunday night time, and, fittingly, they did it at their massive brother’s expense.
Choose your 12 months: The Browns had not gained a playoff sport since Jan. 1, 1995 — earlier than their relocation to Baltimore the following season and their return to the NFL in 1999. Cleveland had not been to a playoff sport since Jan. 5, 2003 — a wild loss at Heinz Discipline to the rival Steelers.
This 12 months was totally different. The Browns grew up. They confirmed maturity in an eye-opening 48-37 victory at Pittsburgh within the AFC wild-card spherical.
Now, an unfamiliar actuality has set in.
Cleveland waxed Pittsburgh a number of days after Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster stated the “Browns is the Browns.” The Browns put a brand new face on an AFC North rivalry that has been dominated by the Steelers this century.
The Browns are one thing else now. They led 28-Zero after one quarter in a most gorgeous position reversal.
Pittsburgh imploded from the primary snap, which sailed over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and was recovered by Cleveland’s Karl Joseph in the long run zone. It dedicated 4 turnovers within the first half, and the Browns scored 21 factors off these miscues. Roethlisberger, who entered the sport with a 24-2-1 document in opposition to Cleveland, threw three first-half interceptions.
The Browns, in the meantime, checked out residence with Baker Mayfield (similar to within the Progressive commercials). Mayfield led a high-percentage assault that “Blitzburgh” couldn’t crack. He completed 21 of 34 for 263 yards, with three TDs and no interceptions. One of many touchdowns was to Austin Hooper with 34 seconds remaining within the second quarter to offer Cleveland a 35-7 lead.
Select your adjective from there. It was surreal, unbelievable, perhaps not possible.
Born-again Browns followers can rejoice. First-year coach Kevin Stefanski missed the sport after testing optimistic for COVID-19. A number of gamers and different coaches have been lacking, too, because the workforce confronted its greatest adversity in 2020. Appearing coach Mike Priefer maintained a gentle sport plan on either side, nonetheless, and Cleveland prevented a redux of the second-half meltdown within the 2003 wild-card matchup.
The Browns grew up, and now they’re worthy of the label “Tremendous Bowl contender” together with the opposite seven groups nonetheless within the playoff discipline.
Cleveland earned that standing with an 11-5 common season led by an even-keeled coach who has maximized the abilities of his franchise quarterback. Who believed the Browns can be on this place when Mayfield fumbled that fourth-quarter snap in opposition to the Jets in Week 16 given how a lot the roster was riddled with COVID-19 points? Who would have believed it in per week the place Cleveland did not apply till Friday?
“We consider,” Mayfield stated on the NBC telecast afterward. “The folks on the surface do not matter to us. It is on the within. We believed the entire time.”
There was a quick glimpse of generational franchise misfortune within the second half. Pittsburgh lower the result in 35-23 and had a fourth-and-1 at their 46 to open the fourth quarter. Then it made a name that will likely be questioned for a very long time. As a substitute of going for it, the Steelers opted to punt from their 41 after trying to attract the Browns offside after which taking a 5-yard delay of sport penalty.
Had a full Three minutes to consider it and punted away the sport. Worst resolution of Tomlin’s profession.
— Michael DeCourcy (@tsnmike) January 11, 2021
After that, there can be no “solely in Cleveland” moments. As a substitute, there was only a mature response. The Browns instantly answered with a six-play, 80-yard landing drive punctuated by a 40-yard cross from Mayfield to Nick Chubb on a display for the rating.
Roethlisberger, who completed 47 of 68 for 501 yards and 4 touchdowns, threw his fourth interception to a leaping Sione Takitaki with 3:16 remaining. That was the efficient finish of the quarter-century playoff-win drought.
The position reversal is full. Pittsburgh, the longstanding chief of the AFC North, will watch the Browns and Ravens play within the AFC divisional spherical. That new association is also an indication of a shift within the division for years to come back, one led by Mayfield and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, who picked up his first playoff victory Sunday. The Steelers could have much more questions within the offseason, together with whether or not it really is time to begin over.
The Browns? They have been there, accomplished that too many instances since 1999. Now they seem prepared for NFL maturity, and the journey to it continues Sunday in Kansas Metropolis in opposition to the defending Tremendous Bowl champion. That’s the subsequent step within the technique of changing into a champion.
Will probably be a full-grown soccer sport.
And, sure, the Browns lastly belong there.