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CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns are back in the playoffs, qualifying for the first time since 2002 on Sunday by surviving a late Pittsburgh rally for a 24-22 win over the Steelers, who rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and several other starters.
The Browns (11-5) nearly blew a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, but stopped Pittsburgh’s 2-point conversion attempt and then recovered an onside kick with 1:22 left to hold on.
A week of COVID-19 disruptions concluded in celebration as the Browns ended what had been the NFL’s longest postseason drought. Their reward: Another game against the AFC North champion Steelers, in Pittsburgh next weekend.
Nick Chubb had a touchdown run, Baker Mayfield threw a TD pass and the Browns hung on as Mason Rudolph brought back the Steelers (12-4), who had the luxury of sitting their best players after clinching the division last week.
Instead of Roethlisberger, who is 23-2-1 in his career against the Browns, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin started Rudolph in the regular-season finale. Big Ben will get another shot at the Browns next week.
Rudolph’s 2-yard TD pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 1:23 left pulled the Steelers within 24-22. But Rudolph badly overthrew rookie Chase Claypool on the 2-point attempt, and Browns tight end Stephen Carlson then fell on the ensuing kick under a pile of bodies.
Before the scoreboard clock in FirstEnergy Stadium ran off its final seconds, most of the 12,000 fans — there were some Terrible Towel wavers — cheered wildly and Browns players danced onto the field.
The win completes a grueling turnaround for the Browns and their passionate fan base, which endured nearly two decades of dysfunction since the team’s last playoff visit — 197 losses, 14 double-digit-loss seasons and seven coaches ago.
But in his first year, coach Kevin Stefanski has not only navigated the Browns through COVID-19 issues, he’s got them back in the Super Bowl tournament.
Stefanski and the Browns barely practiced this week because of COVID-19 positive tests and protocols and went into their most important game in years without six players, including top cornerback Denzel Ward, and three assistant coaches.
Along with Roethlisberger, defensive star T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Maurkice Pouncey didn’t make the trip to Cleveland. The Steelers were also missing cornerback Joe Haden, who tested positive for COVID-19 and may have to miss the playoff game.
The Browns were clinging to a 10-9 lead in the third quarter when Rudolph, under extreme pressure, floated a pass across the field that was intercepted by reserve cornerback M.J. Stewart.
Cleveland capitalized on the turnover with wide receive Jarvis Landry taking an inside handoff and scoring on a 3-yard run to put the Browns up 24-9. Landry, forced to sit out the first game of his career as a COVID-19 close contact, celebrated his score by rifling the ball against the padded end zone wall.
Chubb’s 47-yard touchdown run on Cleveland’s first series made it look like the Browns might be on their way to a comfortable win.
But nothing is ever easy for the Browns, and after their offense bogged down, the Steelers got two field goals by backup Matthew Wright to close within 10-6 at halftime.