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Steelers’ year ends in shocking loss at home to Browns

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7), James Conner (30) and Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) attempt to recover a fumbled high snap during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Pittsburgh. Cleveland Browns strong safety Karl Joseph (42) recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

From Mirror,wire reports

PITTSBURGH — So much for the weight of history. Or practicing. Or having your head coach on the sideline. Or your emotional leader on the field.

The Cleveland Browns overcame all of it, dismantling the Pittsburgh Steelers 48-37 in the wild-card round Sunday night.

It’s the franchise’s first postseason victory in more than a quarter century and earned Cleveland a trip to Kansas City next Sunday to face the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs.

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.

“We believed,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “People on the outside don’t matter to us. It’s on the inside and we believed the whole time, and that’s all that matters.”

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 had pulled within 12. Kareem Hunt added 48 yards and two touchdowns on the ground while Cleveland’s defense forced five turnovers to hand the Steelers (12-5) a staggering loss.

“This is one of the weirdest halves I have ever been a part of, but we still had a chance. We never gave up. I am proud of that,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told 93.7-The Fan in Pittsburgh after the game.

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 victory on the road since back on Dec. 28, 1969.

“I felt like we got down the field still a few times, but when you put yourself in a hole, you limit what you can do,” Roethlisberger said. “We just didn’t play well and I will take the blame on that.”

The Browns did it despite practicing just once over the last two weeks and having lost 17 straight at Heinz Field. They did it with efficiency and a little bit of swagger. And they did it with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer — a Cleveland native — filling in for Stefanski and with offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt — who played collegiately at Pitt — taking over the play-calling duties.

“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 (12-5) 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.

“You can’t turn the ball over. It kills your team,” Roethlisberger said. “I don’t have any magical answers. We just didn’t put it together.”

The 48 points were the most the Steelers have given up in the playoffs, surpassing the 45 they gave up to Jacksonville in the 2017 playoffs.

“I tip my cap to them.They got th best of us,” Roethliberger said.

Pittsburgh’s problems started on the first play from scrimmage when center Maurkice Pouncey’s snap sailed by Roethlisberger all the way to the end zone. Cleveland’s Karl Joseph fell on it for a touchdown. The miscues were just starting. Roethlisberger threw three first-half interceptions, two of which led directly to Browns scores.

“I grew up a Browns fan so I know what this means to Cleveland,” said Mike Priefer, Cleveland’s special teams coach who acted as head coach in the absence of Stefanski.

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 that put Cleveland up 35-7 at the break.

Pittsburgh — much as it did in its last playoff appearance three years ago, an upset defeat at home to Jacksonville — 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, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin opted to punt.

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’s teammates insisted he was kidding — 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 took out their frustration.

Injuries

Browns: All-Pro tackle Jake 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 and defensive back Mike Hilton both sustained injuries in the second half and did not return.

Up next

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.

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