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Browns ride first-quarter explosion to playoff takedown of Steelers

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The Browns scored more than one first-quarter point for every year spent as the NFL’s punch line.

How does 25 years of irrelevance manifest itself? In a first-play touchdown. In two touchdowns off turnovers. In three touchdowns in the first 10 minutes. In four touchdowns in the first quarter. In a complete takedown of a bitter rival.

The first half featured two Baker Mayfield touchdown passes, two Kareem Hunt touchdown runs and four takeaways by the Browns defense to build a 25-point halftime lead on the way to a 48-37 victory over the sleepwalking Steelers in an AFC wild-card game.

If anything is worth waiting 18 years to return to the playoffs, it was this performance, which surely had head coach Kevin Stefanski partying in his basement. Stefanski led the Browns to 11 regular-season wins in his first year at the helm, but was in NFL-mandated quarantine Sunday night due to a COVID-19 positive test result. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer filled in.

The Browns won a playoff game for the first time in their current incarnation. The last playoff win was in 1994 — with Bill Belichick as an unproven head coach — before the original Browns franchise moved and became the Ravens. The Steelers eliminated the Browns in their two most recent playoff trips (1994, 2002).

Browns
Jarvis Landry celebrates catching a 40-yard pass in the Browns’ win over the Steelers on Sunday.
AP

Two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger was dreadful in throwing three first-half interceptions. If this was the final game in the 38-year-old quarterback’s Hall of Fame career, it was an unsuitable goodbye despite a huge final stat line of 47-for-68 passing for 501 yards and four touchdowns.

The Steelers started the season 11-0 but never looked dominant, so it wasn’t a surprise when the bid for a perfect season ended. But four losses in the final five games exposed offensive flaws that couldn’t be masked behind a dominating defense after pass-rusher Bud Dupree’s season-ending injury.

Still, no one expected this much fraudulence. Trailing 28-0, the Steelers punted at the Browns’ 38-yard line.

The Browns became the first team to score 28 points in the first quarter of a playoff game since 1969. That’s the same year as what had been their most recent road playoff win — one year before the AFL-NFL merger.

Disaster struck on the first play when nine-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball over Roethlisberger’s head, and it rolled into the end zone. Karl Joseph dove on the ball for a touchdown.

The quick strikes kept coming: A 40-yard catch-and-run by Jarvis Landry for one of Mayfield’s three touchdown passes and rushing scores of 11 and 8 yards by Hunt. When the Steelers finally found the end zone late in the second quarter, the Browns needed only 70 seconds to respond with a touchdown.

JuJu Smith-Schuster collected 13 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown but has egg on his face. The trash-talking receiver this week said the Browns are “nameless gray faces” and “the Browns is the Browns” — a dig at their hapless history.

The Steelers scored 16 straight points as Roethlisberger threw two third-quarter touchdowns to cut a deficit from 35-7 to 35-23.

For whiplashed Browns fans, it surely stirred feelings of 2002 and blowing a 17-point second-half lead — including a 12-point lead in the final 10 minutes — against the Steelers in the wild-card round.

But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin put those fears to rest when he inexplicably punted on the first play of the fourth quarter.

With all the momentum on his side, he bypassed going for a fourth-and-1 just shy of midfield and the Browns turned the punt into the game-sealing touchdown drive and a trip to face the Chiefs next weekend. Roethlisberger added a fourth interception.

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