Analysis

Browns overcome adversity, past history to claim stunning wild-card victory over Steelers

The Browns, it turns out, is the Browns, as JuJu Smith-Schuster noted last week, but they are no longer nameless gray faces and most definitely not still the same Browns teams he plays ever year.

The same Browns would not have survived the last two weeks of almost no practice and would have melted down on Sunday against a team that always dominates them, with their head coach and offensive play-caller locked away because of a positive COVID-19 test. They would have had no reason to enact a ritual perfectly suited to the 2020 season -- a FaceTime call with the coach to celebrate a franchise-cleansing victory, and then a video trolling Smith-Schuster. "The Browns going to be the Browns!" they yelled into the camera. Baker Mayfield would not have had a reason to pause during his media session to turn his hat backwards, a nod to the talking heads who think his swagger is still unfounded.

In a snap -- literally, the first snap of the game -- a lifetime of football humiliations and the condescension that has accompanied them finally started to befall someone other than the Cleveland Browns, for whom the pedestrian words "fumble" and "drive" send shivers. That snap sailed high over Ben Roethlisberger's head, skittered toward the end zone as Roethlisberger hesitated to fall on it, and unleashed a stunning avalanche of misfortune that buried the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, 48-37. The Browns, having survived a Steelers rally that recalled the horrors of the past to send one venerated team home, now face another -- they will go to Kansas City next Sunday for the Divisional Round game.

Mike Priefer, the Browns special teams coach who stepped in for head coach Kevin Stefanski, grew up a Browns fan, making him the perfect vessel of the cocktail of confidence and angst that inhabits Cleveland and these Browns. He knows exactly what winning a playoff game -- what vanquishing the Steelers in a playoff game -- means in Cleveland. He got nervous when the Steelers started to come back, he admitted, just like everybody else watching, even those with no rooting interest beyond a soft spot for the underdog.

But Priefer had also had the up-close view of how the Browns had navigated a week that was a microcosm of the NFL this season without batting a eye. They held their meetings remotely, Zooming through sessions like so many schoolchildren, drawing on their notebooks to show coaches they knew their assignments. He was on the practice field Friday, when the Browns were finally able to go through their paces for the first time this week. The same old Browns -- heck, even the Browns of last season -- did not have the single-mindedness and maturity to weather the weirdness. These Browns do.

"I think because of the adversity -- iron sharpens iron, right? -- it made us a stronger team, made us a closer team," Priefer said. "If it was all roses and butterflies, we wouldn't be able to respond in times of adversity. When things started to happen in the third quarter, the way our team responded came from where our team came from. We've actually gotten a lot better at facing that adversity."

The Browns hadn't won a playoff game in 26 years before Sunday night, their glory days having expired before the Super Bowl era even began. Their devoted fans have been tormented by dozens of failed coaches and quarterbacks over the last 20 years. And a rash of COVID-19 infections on the team disrupted Cleveland's routine for two weeks. Stefanski formulated the Wild Card Round game plan remotely and then watched his team execute it on television.

As snarky and disrespectful as Smith-Schuster's assessment of the Browns was, it didn't strike anybody as too terribly off the mark, given the circumstances. That bad luck would trail the Browns into their first playoff appearance since 2002 seemed painfully fitting, despite the 11 victories this season and the Coach of the Year award that is probably coming Stefanski's way soon and the "couple of good players" that even Smith-Schuster admitted were now on the Browns.

But this game will go down in Browns lore as the one in which the little brother swallowed his nerves and flipped the table and the narrative on the older, more successful sibling. Priefer's pregame speech to the team echoed Stefanski's message: The faster, more physical team would prevail. It was true from that very first moment.

That errant snap was recovered by the Browns for a touchdown 14 seconds into the game. Two interceptions of Roethlisberger and some powerful runs by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt followed and it was 28-0 before the end of the first quarter.

"Kareem ran pissed off," Mayfield said. "He ran like he wanted to get to Kansas City."

Now he will get to play his former team.

When the Steelers, having found an offensive rhythm and closed Cleveland's lead to just 12 points, faced a fourth-and-1 from near midfield at the start of the fourth quarter, it was Mike Tomlin who blinked, opting to punt. It turned out to be the most important decision of the game -- the Browns scored soon after to end the Steelers' momentum -- and it was a telling one. The Steelers had lost their confidence and their aggressiveness.

For the team that is used to everything going wrong, everything finally went right. Roethlisberger was intercepted four times, the final one with 3:16 remaining in the game and the Steelers desperately trying to rally from a 16-point deficit. The stark illustration of the inverted fortunes came as the final seconds ticked away. The Browns rushed onto the field to shake hands. And Roethlisberger sat motionless on the bench, not going out to greet his counterparts, staring into the distance, the uncertain future upon him more quickly than anybody expected. He said later he would discuss with his family what to do. As staggering as the Browns' explosion felt, it had been building since November, when the teams switched their historic roles. The Steelers, after an 11-0 start, began to suffer injuries to their defense, their offensive line started to struggle and their offense ground to a halt. They lost four of their last five regular-season games. The Browns, in the meantime, had gone 6-2 in the second half of the season.

"We are a group," Tomlin said, "that died on the vine."

It used to be the Browns who withered away, season after season, the failure interrupted only by the gut-wrenching absence of the team after the old Browns moved to Baltimore and before the new Browns were restored. Only in those hollow years were the brown paper bags put away and the Dawg Pound silenced. Maybe it is appropriate that in the NFL's strangest season, the strangeness extends to the sight of the Browns, like the Buffalo Bills a perennial also-ran, in the second weekend of the playoffs. They have known decades of frustration and hardship. A missed practice, a shuffled coaching staff, a few roster holes do not really rattle this hardened version. They are not NFL royalty like the Steelers, but this season, it is the battle-tested who have the edge. And no franchise has faced more adversity than Cleveland.

"The Browns is the Browns," Mayfield sang as he ran off the field.

This time, at long last, that is something to be celebrated, not scorned.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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