The Browns grew up on Sunday night and, unsurprisingly, they did so at the expense of their older brother.
Pick your year: The Browns hadn’t won a playoff game since January 1, 1995, before moving to Baltimore the next season and returning to the NFL in 1999. Cleveland hadn’t been in a playoff game since January 5, 2003 – A wild loss at Heinz Field to the rival Steelers.
MORE: Updates, highlights from the Browns’ win that ended the drought
This year was different. The Browns grew. They showed maturity in a revealing 48-37 victory at Pittsburgh in the AFC wild-card round.
Now, an unknown reality has settled in.
Cleveland deposed Pittsburgh a few days after Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said that “Browns are the Browns.” The Browns put a new face on an AFC North rivalry that has been dominated by the Steelers this century.
The Browns are something else now. They led 28-0 after a quarter in a more surprising role reversal.
Pittsburgh imploded from the first center, which went over the head of Ben Roethlisberger and was recovered by Cleveland’s Karl Joseph in the end zone. He committed four turnovers in the first half and the Browns scored 21 points on those errors. Roethlisberger, who entered the game with a 24-2-1 record against Cleveland, threw three interceptions in the first half.
The Browns, meanwhile, looked right at home with Baker Mayfield (as in the Progressive commercials). Mayfield led a high-percentage attack that “Blitzburgh” couldn’t break. He finished 21 of 34 for 263 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. One of the touchdowns went to Austin Hooper with 34 seconds remaining in the second quarter to give Cleveland a 35-7 lead at halftime.
Choose your adjective from there. It was surreal, incredible, maybe impossible.
Born-again Browns fans can rejoice. Freshman coach Kevin Stefanski missed the game after testing positive for COVID-19. Several players and other coaches were also missing, as the team faced its greatest adversity in 2020. Acting coach Mike Priefer maintained a stable game plan on both sides, however, and Cleveland avoided a reduction in the second-half collapse in The Wild 2003 -Letter poster.
The Browns grew up and are now worthy of the label of “Super Bowl contender” along with the seven other teams still in the playoff field.
Cleveland earned that status with an 11-5 regular season led by a balanced coach who has maximized the talents of his franchise quarterback. Who did you think the Browns would be in this position when Mayfield lost that ball in the fourth quarter to the Jets in Week 16, given how fraught with COVID-19 problems on the roster? Who would have believed it in a week that Cleveland didn’t train until Friday?
“We believe,” Mayfield said on the NBC broadcast afterward. “We don’t care about outsiders. They’re inside. We believed all the time.”
There was a brief glimpse of the franchise’s generational disgrace in the second half. Pittsburgh cut the lead to 35-23 and had a quarter and 1 in its 46 to open the fourth quarter. Then he made a call that will be questioned for a long time. Rather than trying, the Steelers opted to punt from 41 after attempting to take the Browns out of play and then receiving a 5-yard delay penalty.
I had a full 3 minutes to think about it and the game kicked off. The worst decision of Tomlin’s career.
– Michael DeCourcy (@tsnmike) January 11, 2021
After that, there would be no “Cleveland only” moments. Instead, there was only a mature response. The Browns responded immediately with an 80-yard, six-play touchdown marked by a 40-yard pass from Mayfield to Nick Chubb on a scoring screen.
Roethlisberger, who finished 47 of 68 for 501 yards and four touchdowns, threw his fourth interception to Sione Takitaki who was jumping with 3:16 to play. That was the effective end of a quarter-century drought of playoff victories.
The role reversal is complete. Pittsburgh, the longtime leader of the AFC North, will see the Browns and Ravens play in the AFC divisional round. That new arrangement could also be a sign of a change in the division in the coming years, led by Mayfield and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, who scored his first playoff victory Sunday. The Steelers will have a lot more questions in the offseason, even if it’s really time to start over.
The Browns? They’ve been there, they’ve done it too many times since 1999. Now they seem ready for adulthood in the NFL, and the journey continues Sunday in Kansas City against the defending Super Bowl champion. That is the next step in the process of becoming a champion.
It will be an adult soccer game.
And, yes, the Browns finally belong there.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.