Wednesday, January 20

Week 17 Baker Mayfield makes the Browns a threat to the Steelers in the AFC playoffs

The moment does not require a fancy phrase. There are enough of those in Brown’s folklore that conjure up memories of heartbreak.

Baker Mayfield put the Browns’ playoff fate in his hands and made the play. At third and 2 with 1:10 left in the game, he made a 3-yard quarterback sweep for a first down. The conversion secured a 24-22 victory over the Steelers and ended Cleveland’s endless 18-year postseason drought.

NFL PLAYOFF PICTURE: Updated Rankings for Week 17

It’s a moment that Browns fans won’t forget, but now it’s only fair to ask more of Mayfield, the franchise quarterback who ended the Browns’ quarterback carousel, and took fans on an emotional roller coaster ride. Sunday.

Tension. Relief. Celebration. Reflection.

Now add another word: anticipation. If Mayfield plays like he did in the second half of Week 17, then Cleveland could be a tough out in the AFC playoffs. Mayfield will have a chance to prove it when Cleveland (11-5) meets Pittsburgh (12-4) in the wild-card round next weekend.

Of course, with the stakes at stake, the Steelers won’t let key players like Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward and TJ Watt rest again. Roethlisberger is 24-2-1 against the Browns as a starter and Mayfield is 0-3 at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh, which won the AFC North but lost four of its last five games to close out the 2020 regular season, will be a huge favorite.

MORE: Why the Steelers gave Ben and other starters off in Week 17

Success, then, will depend even more on Mayfield, who is tasked with leading Cleveland to its first playoff victory since 1994.

Mayfield was shaky early Sunday morning. He hit just 7 of 15 passes for 104 yards in the first half, and Cleveland led just 10-9 after the Steelers kicked a field goal with 8:34 left in the third quarter.

It was then that Mayfield led a series of deals that turned the momentum in Cleveland’s favor. He went through a blitz for a 28-yard fight. He completed 4 of 4 passes for 49 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown to Austin Hooper. Cleveland extended their lead and Pittsburgh backup quarterback Mason Rudolph threw an interception on the next possession, which the Browns converted into another TD.

Rudolph finally put the Steelers in position to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, but missed a 2-point conversion pass to Chase Claypool. Stephen Carlson kicked out between the legs and Mayfield ended the anxiety three plays later with his goalkeeper.

Now comes the fun part. The Browns and Steelers will meet for the first time in the postseason since Kelly Holcomb and Tommy Maddox put on a show in Pittsburgh’s 36-33 wild-card win on January 5, 2003. Mayfield-Roethlisberger could be just as dramatic.

For the first time since 1999, the Browns can steal the spotlight from their longtime rivals. Freshman coach Kevin Stefan ski is an excellent candidate for coach of the year. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt’s two-headed rushing attack is great for playoff football, and the defense, led by Myles Garrett, has improved.

However, the postseason still depends on the quarterback’s game, and this will be Mayfield’s first time on that stage. Josh Allen of the Bills and Lamar Jackson of the Ravens are still looking for their first postseason wins.

In his previous three visits to Heinz Field, Mayfield is 50-of-86 (58.1 percent) with four TDs and four interceptions. He has averaged 165 yards through the air. Roethlisberger is 13-8 in the postseason with three Super Bowl appearances.

Still, this matchup is interesting, and ruling out the Browns would be a mistake.

We’ll find out about Mayfield sentiment next weekend.

There is a fancy phrase for that. It will be necessary.

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