The Cleveland Browns had every reason to be a part of a lopsided, mildly interesting Wild Card game this weekend.
On the wrong end.
Instead, the Browns jumped to a 28-0 first-quarter lead, pushed back on the Steelers’ inevitable run and ultimately won 48-37. Sure, an unforced error on the first offensive play gifted Cleveland a touchdown, and things spiraled from there for a un uncharacteristically sloppy Steelers team.
And, yes, Pittsburgh’s 11-0 start was always fool’s gold, especially with Ben Roethlisberger playing like the worst version of himself. Still, it’s a veteran team run by one of the best and most unflappable coaches in the league. This shouldn’t happen to the Steelers.
Meanwhile, the Browns had plenty of reasons to not be sharp. Head coach Kevin Stefanski, the mastermind behind Cleveland’s first trip to the postseason since 2002, wasn’t even at the game due to COVID-19 protocols. The Browns also played without second-team All Pro guard Joel Bitonio and starting corner Denzel Ward for the same reason.
Beyond that, the COVID outbreak threw the Browns into virtual prep with sporadic practice time this week. Plus, Cleveland was playing the Steelers for a second time in a row, a difficult task for multiple reasons:The Browns had to win last week to make the playoffs, and therefore exerted more energy, emotionally and physically. The Steelers, meanwhile, rested key players and ran a slimmed-down game plan that was meant mostly to conceal how they would attack and defend this week when the game really mattered.
Surely the second half, when Pittsburgh climbed within 13 points early in the 4th quarter, was not fun for Browns fans accustomed to having their hopes shattered by this team. But then Mayfield orchestrated a 13-play drive that ate up 6 minutes of clock and led to a field goal before Sione Takitaki intercepted a Roethlisberger pass — the Steelers’ fifth turnover — to set up a game-sealing field goal.
Browns fans could exhale. They could maybe even get excited about the prospect of going into Kansas City next and knocking off the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs in the divisional round. Why not, at this point? When you haven’t been to the playoffs in nearly two decades there’s no reason to hold back on hope.
The truth is, we have not been very high on the Browns’ future — largely because Mayfield remains limited but has put up numbers that will make it difficult to not pay him like a QB who can carry a franchise. He was … just OK against the Steelers, running a simplified offense built to not let him get in trouble. He avoided turnovers, but had a success rate of just 50 and completion percentage over expectation of -9.
Meanwhile the Browns defense gave up 501 passing yards to Roethlisberger. Sure, the lopsided score skews some of that, but there’s also this: Ben has nowhere near as strong an arm now as Patrick Mahomes does, is far less mobile and has a supporting cast that is a shadow of what the Chiefs deploy.
So, next week will be a challenge.
There’s time to dissect all of that this week. For now, one unexpected win, after all that time and with so many things in the way, is enough.