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Browns clinch playoff berth with win

By Nate Ulrich
Akron Beacon Journal/TNS

CLEVELAND - The Browns slayed what had been the NFL's longest active playoff drought with a dramatic 24-22 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular-season finale Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.

With the win, the Browns clinched their first playoff berth since 2002. They had gone 17 seasons without a playoff appearance.

Their last playoff game was Jan. 5, 2003, a 36-33 wild-card loss in Pittsburgh. The defeat began a stretch of 90-197-1 for the Browns. The team suffered 14 double-digit loss seasons during the span.

The Browns (11-5) and Steelers (12-4) will meet again in Pittsburnext weekend's wild-card round.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield ran for 3 yards on third-and-2 from the Pittsburgh 42-yard line to seal the win.

The Browns had their lead reduced to 10-9 when Matthew Wright made a 46-yard field goal with 8:29 left in the third quarter. On third-and-7 at the Pittsburgh 23, quarterback Mason Rudolph connected with wide receiver Chase Claypool for 41 yards over the coverage of cornerback Terrance Mitchell, helping position the Steelers for the field goal.

Mayfield and the offense came to life on the next series, and the Browns countered to build a 17-9 advantage with 3:48 remaining in the third quarter. Mayfield and tight end David Njoku connected for 14 yards and a first down on third-and-5 from the Cleveland 42. Then Mayfield scrambled for 28 yards. Three plays later, Mayfield finished the eight-play, 76-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper, who was wide open in the end zone.

Then Browns cornerback M.J. Stewart changed the game with a takeaway. On third-and-9 at the Pittsburgh 42, Rudolph was pressured by rookie linebacker Jacob Phillips and safety Ronnie Harrison when Stewart intercepted his pass intended for receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and returned it 30 yards to the Pittsburgh 20 with 1:31 left in the third quarter.

On third-and-8, receiver KhaDarel Hodge used his left hand to haul in a pass Mayfield threw behind him, resulting in a 15-yard gain.

On first-and-goal, Landry lined up on the right, went into motion, took a handoff from Mayfield and reached the end zone for a 3-yard rushing touchdown with 14:57 left in the fourth quarter. The Browns seized a 24-9 lead with the four-play, 20-yard scoring drive off Stewart's interception.

But the Steelers struck back. On fourth-and-10, Claypool caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Rudolph while tangled with Mitchell in the end zone. The Steelers trimmed the Browns' lead to 24-16 with the 13-play, 75-yard drive.

During the ensuing series, the Browns marched to the Pittsburgh 33, where Mayfield was sacked by defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt for a loss of 4 yards on third-and-3. Then Mayfield threw low and incomplete for receiver Rashard Higgins on fourth-and-7 from the 35, resulting in a turnover on downs with 3:37 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The Steelers took advantage of the momentum. On first-and-15 from the Pittsburgh 43, Rudolph launched a 47-yard pass to receiver Diontae Johnson, who sprinted past cornerback Robert Jackson and safety Karl Joseph to make the catch at the Cleveland 10.

Then on third-and-goal, Rudolph threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Claypool, who beat Stewart in the front of the end zone. But the Steelers trailed 24-22 with 1:23 to play after Rudolph's pass to Claypool on the 2-point attempt was high and incomplete with Jackson in coverage.

Tight end Stephen Carlson recovered the onside kick by essentially sitting on the ball and grabbing it.

Three plays later, Mayfield rushed for the game-clinching first down.

The Browns led 10-6 at halftime.

They got a defensive stop to begin the game, then scored on their first possession to take a 7-0 lead with 9:29 left in the first quarter. On first-and-10, running back Nick Chubb broke loose off the right side for a 47-yard rushing touchdown. He made standout free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick miss near the 25 and ran into the end zone to complete the six-play, 85-yard drive.

A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Chubb surpassed 1,000 rushing yards this season during the play. He missed four games with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee.

The Browns extended their lead to 10-0 with 9:45 left in the second quarter, when Cody Parkey made a 23-yard field at the end of a 10-play, 70-yard drive. Mayfield and Higgins connected for a 42-yard gain along the Steelers sideline on a go route against Fitzpatrick's coverage. The Browns faced first-and-goal at the 4, but they failed to reach the end zone with Mayfield and Njoku failing to connect twice and Chubb losing a yard on second down.

The Steelers answered with their first score of the game. Wright made a 29-yard field goal at the end of an 11-play, 66-yard drive to cut the Browns' lead to 10-3 with 4:10 left in the second quarter. Rudolph and Johnson hooked up for 41 yard on a pass along the Cleveland sideline over Jackson. But on third-and-9 at the 11, defensive end Adrian Clayborn grabbed Rudolph as he threw incomplete, and the Steelers settled for a field goal.

After the Browns went three-and-out, Wright continued to chip away at their lead. His 46-yard field goal at the end of an eight-play, 48-yard drive trimmed the Steelers' deficit to 10-6 with 1:07 left in the second quarter. The drive stalled after defensive end Olivier Vernon sacked Rudolph for an 8-yard loss on second-and-5 from the 27.

The Browns dealt with schedule disruptions and canceled practices last week and were without the following six players and three assistant coaches due to COVID-19: cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson, linebackers B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith, free safety Andrew Sendejo and rookie tight end Harrison Bryant, Bill Callahan (offensive line), Chad O'Shea (passing game coordinator and receivers coach) and Scott Peters (assistant offensive line).

The Steelers wrapped up the AFC North title last week, so they rested four of their biggest stars – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, outside linebacker T.J. Watt, defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and center Maurkice Pouncey. The Steelers also had three players out due to COVID-19: cornerback Joe Haden, formerly of the Browns, tight end Eric Ebron and linebacker Cassius Marsh.

Roethlisberger is 23-2-1 as a starter against the Browns. Rudolph is 0-2 as a starter against the Browns. He started against them for the first time since Nov. 14, 2019, when Browns two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Myles Garrett hit Rudolph over the head with the backup quarterback's helmet during a nasty brawl in the final seconds of a 21-7 Cleveland win at FirstEnergy Stadium.

The NFL suspended Garrett for the final six games of the season, and he accused Rudolph of calling him "a stupid N-word" in the moments preceding the infamous helmet swing. Rudolph has denied the allegation.

Garrett served as the Browns' game captain Sunday.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield throws a pass in the fourth quarter protected by the blocking of offensive guard Joel Bitonio keeping Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Chris Wormley away from Mayfield in the fourth quarter, Jan. 3, 2021, at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.