By Arnie Leshin
One day after the Buffalo Bills ended a 25-year playoff draught and advanced from the first round of the National Football League season plagued by the coronaviruspandemic, the Cleveland Browns did the same on Sunday by emerging with their initial postseason success in 27 years as the two-day wild card round concluded with these two AFC historic landmarks.
While Buffalo celebrated by surviving a late scare from the visiting Indianapolis, 27-24, in the opener of the playoffs, visiting Cleveland did so in the Sunday night finale by stunning the Pittsburgh Steelers, 48-37, in a game that wasn’t quite as close at the final score might indicate.
That set up the AFC’s upcoming menu, with the 5th-seeded Baltimore Ravens (11-5) traveling to 2nd-seeded Buffalo (14-3) for Saturday’s 6:15 scheduled kickoff to be viewed on NBC. And for Cleveland (11-5), whose fans stormed the downtown streets to celebrate when the game ended, now makes a visit to overall top seeded Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday slated for a 1:05 start on CBS.
In the NFC, the Rams (11-6) snapped out of a late season slump by getting past the division-rival, 3rd-seeded West champion Seattle Seahawks, 30-20, behind a stout and aggressive defense, and the remaining Sunday contest sends the 5th-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) to 2nd-seeded New Orleans (12-4) in a 4:40 kickoff on FOX. The Saints swept the Bucs in their two South division contests.
Baltimore, which made a late run to gain the post-season as a wild card, survived its opener on the road by coming from behind to oust the 4th-seeded, North champion Tennessee Titans, and will now hit the road for Buffalo.
Trailing 10-0, Baltimore got behind the run and pass game engineered by versatile quarterback Lamar Jackson to come away with a 20-13 triumph, up its record to 12-5, and end Tennessee’s season at 11-5. Jackson, winning his first playoff game, ran for a 48-yard touchdown, totaled 130 yards carrying the ball, and threw for 179 yards through the air. Baltimore ended its 21-straight streak of losing in the regular season of postseason when down 10 points or more.
This came in the Sunday AFC opener, a day after the 2nd-seeded Buffalo Bills kicked off the weekend first rounder by disposing of the upset-minded, 7th-seeded Indianapolis Colts, 27-24, in a tough tussle that wasn’t decided until the final whistle.
Following the Bills-Colts AFC tilt, the slumping Rams arrived in Seattle Saturday after finishing two games behind theSeahawks in the NFC West, but came away with a solid defensive effort to slow down the Seattle offense led by quarterback Russell Wilson, who was sacked three times and forced into throws.
In the Saturday night closer, the 4th-seeded Washington Football Team (7-10), winner of the NFC East title, gave the visiting 5th-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-5) a tough test before bowing 31-13. The Bucs Led early and late by 43-year-old future Hall of Famer quarterback Tom Brady, and the runner-up in the NFC South to New Orleans, will now travel to the Saints after losing twice to them in double digits in the regular season, and this could be veteran New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees’ final season before he retires and gets voted into the Hall of Fame. And for the third time this season, it matches Brady against Brees.
In that game two on Sunday, Chicago (8-9) had come through with a late run to become a surprising wild card, but couldn’t put an effective offense together in New Orleans and couldn’t contain Brees, who wound up with two touchdown passes, accounted for 385 total yards, and had a huge possession advantage, 38:58 to 21:02 in the 21-9 result. Akan Kamara picked up 99 Saints’ yard running the ball on 23 tugs, New Orleans had a 27-11 advantage in first downs, led 7-3 after one quarter, 7-3 at the half, and 14-3 heading into the final quarter.
The determined Bears hung around, but couldn’t put enough offense together to keep up with Brees and company. Still, it was a game effort to get this far as they beat out the Arizona Cardinals for the final wild card berth.
The Browns had come off the previous week’s two-point home win over the their South division-rival champion Steelers to finally gain the post-season. Now, with Pitt having a rested roster, it didn’t look good for Cleveland this time. But quickly, the visitors grabbed a 28-0 lead after one quarter as a limited turnout of 9,156 sat in disbeliefal. It began on the Steelers’ first possession on their own 11-yard line when the high snap from center floated over the head of quarterback Roethisberger and the Browns’ Karl Joseph pounced on it in the end zone for the TD.
Next came one of four Roethlisberger’s four interceptions (three in the first half) that led to another tally and it was now 14-0. Running back Nick Chubb followed with his first of two touchdowns on a 46-yard pass play with quarterback Baker Mayfield and finished with four catches for 69 yards and 18 for 76 along the ground. The lead at halftime before a limited turnout became 35-10 after the Browns scored again on an 11-yard run from Kareem Hunt, while the stunned Steelers responded with a field goal and touchdown.
The lead was cut to 35-23 after three quarters when the Cleveland offense shut down and Roethlisberger threw for a pair of TD passes, failing once on a 2-point conversion. But the home side scored late as Roethlisberger rallied his troops, but it was too little too late and wound up as 48-37 final and a huge celebration from the Browns’ sideline and players in a contest played without head coach Kevin Stefanski, who was home alone watching on the tubes after testing positive for COVID-19.
Cleveland’s offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt took over the play-calling duties and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer took care of the other necessities. Cleveland forced five turnovers and this was the biggest first-half lead in NFL playoff history.
It was the first time Cleveland won at Heinz Stadium in 17 years. The last was in 1994 under then head coach Bill Billicheck over the New England Patriots under then head coach Bill Parcells. But it then lost in the first round of the playoffs. This time, the draught ended behind an aroused effort led by Mayfield, Chubb, and a team with only six able offensive linemen, and each time it switched its guards and tackles, it was all confusion to Mayfield.
“We were in the locker room before the game,” said Mayfield, “and I saw unfamiliar faces, then I was introduced to a new lineman I remember as ‘Brady,’ and later saw him enter the game. With all this substituting, these guys did a tremendous job and I was proud of them.”
Cleveland rushed for 127 yards on 31 carries, Mayfield passed for 263 yards on 21 for 34 completions. The stunned Steelers, who wound up at 12-4, had more first downs, 34-20, and more total yards, 553-390, but only 52 came along the ground, with Smith-Schuster and Johnson reeling in 274 yards through the air.
All week, the talk was about Pittsburgh bouncing back to avenge the loss on the road, but Cleveland had other ideas, believed in them, and off it went to send the Steelers packing. One last chance to get closer ended when Roethlisberger’s last pass was intercepted by Marcus Peters with 1:50 left.
As for Buffalo, the last time it was in the postseason was in 1994 when it lost its fourth-straight Super Bowl with Marvin Levy as head coach, Hall of Famer Jim Kelly at quarterback, and Bruce Smith as the all-pro defensive lineman. It fell first to the state-rival New York Giants on a final field goal that went wide left, and then to the former Redskins, and back-to-back to the Dallas Cowboys, with none of those three games close.
The ’94 campaign did bring the Bills their fourth-straight AFC championship, which was a high standard for Western New York, but now they are in quest of an initial Super Bowl title after a long wait to get there. As for Indy, its head coach is former Buffalo quarterback Frank Reich, and it provided a struggle for the home team and its 11,480 limited fans in the stands, as his Colts beat out the Miami Dolphins for the last wild card berth.
EXTRA POINTS: In the first round selections compiled by four local football coaches and Cleveland High School Athletic Director Matt Martinez, it was St. Michael’s head coach Joey Fernandez’s pick of the Cleveland Browns in the Sunday night finale at the Pittsburgh Steelers that landed him on top of the heap with 4 correct selections and at 4-2. The others, Santa Fe High head coach Andrew Martinez, Capital High head coach Bill Moon, St. Michael’s assistant coach Kevin Hauck, and Martinez, all went 3-3.
All of them chose the Buffalo Bills over the Indianapolis Colts, and the Seattle Seahawks over the Los Angeles Rams, but Martinez settled for Washington over Tampa Bay, but picked the Baltimore Ravens over the Tennessee Titans, and Moon picked the Chicago Bears over the New Orleans Saints. Lots of fun and perhaps they will also make selections for this weekend’s divisional four games.