Opinion: Not the same ol’ Browns, this Cleveland team shows resilience in NFL playoffs

PITTSBURGH — Maybe the Cleveland Browns ought to give JuJu Smith-Schuster a game ball.

 After all, the brash Pittsburgh Steelers receiver now has a place in Browns lore for contributing the perfect bulletin board material to accompany the monumental upset that took place on Sunday night at Heinz Field.

 “The Browns is the Browns,” Smith-Schuster said as the matchup loomed, dismissing the AFC North rival as an afterthought.

No, Cleveland's 48-39 victory in the AFC wlld-card playoff wasn’t a matter of a team being fired up by an incendiary quote. But it sure felt satisfying for the Browns, claiming the franchise’s first playoff victory in 26 years, to put the karma in perspective.

Something you haven't seen in 26 years: the Cleveland Browns celebrating an NFL playoff victory. (Photo: Justin Berl, AP)

 “Any talk like that is disrespectful,” Browns defensive end Myles Garrett said during his postgame Zoom conference. “We definitely didn’t appreciate it. We let that be known with our performance tonight, getting a win in their house.”

In the hours before the game, Baker Mayfield posted Smith-Schuster’s quote on social media to remind the world that his Browns knew exactly what so many — maybe you and millions of others — had to be thinking about the matchup that would close the NFL’s first weekend of the playoffs.

No chance. 

Mayfield said that in posting the quote, “It wasn’t about that. We believe in the people in this room. We knew everyone would count us out. We just had to cut it loose and give it everything we have. No one believed in us, besides us.”

The underdog theme in the NFL undoubtedly goes back 101 years to the formation of the league. Yet in the here-and-now, it really applied to the Browns, who had lost 17 consecutive games in Pittsburgh and were suddenly confronted by a COVID-19 outbreak that kept several key players — including three in the secondary — and head coach Kevin Stefanski back in Cleveland. The team barely practiced all week. Add that to the franchise’s sad playoff history and that’s an underdog in the classic sense.

But look who’s headed to Kansas City now for the AFC divisional playoffs?

“It means a lot for our guys to step up,” said Mayfield.

Since he arrived as the No. 1 pick in the draft, Mayfield has harped on and on about changing perceptions and building a winning culture. The victory against the Steelers, though, added so many layers of substance to such proclamations.

These Browns aren’t the Browns of 1999, 2003, 2008 or certainly 2017 — the sad-sacked unit that finished 0-16.

It’s no wonder that after it was over, Mayfield and Garrett, also picked No. 1 overall, could afford a moment of reflection. Mayfield said the gist of their exchange was this: “We were all brought here for a reason.”

The vision undoubtedly includes winning championships, but for that to happen you’ve got to win a playoff game first.

      Stefanski, despite being quarantined, supplied that vision while giving the typical Saturday night pre-game speech … in the not-so-typical fashion of a Zoom call.

Mayfield said Stefanski told the players he envisioned a tipped pass that would wind up as a Browns interception. Sure enough, it happened in the second quarter when Vincent Taylor deflected a Ben Roethlisberger pass at the line of scrimmage and defensive end Porter Gustin fully extended his 6-5, 257-pound to dive for the football. It was one of four Roethlisberger interceptions (in 68 passes!) and part of a larger vision.

During his speech on Saturday night, Stefanski outlined three keys the Browns needed to achieve to win:

Win the turnover battle. The Steelers turned the ball over five times, starting with center Maurkice Pouncey’s wild shotgun snap on the first offensive play of the game, which sailed past Roethlisberger and was ultimately recovered in the end zone by Karl Joseph for the touchdown that gave Cleveland a quick 7-0 lead. The Browns, meanwhile, flawlessly protected the football and never turned it over to allow for a plus-five turnover ratio.

 “Plus 5? On the road? In a playoff game? It doesn’t happen very often,” interim coach Mike Priefer said.

Rely on your techniques and fundamentals. That was Stefanski’s message when considering the limited time on the practice field. With its headquarters shut down for most off the week, the Browns didn’t practice until Friday, followed by walk-through sessions on Saturday and Sunday morning.

Play as a team. The victory was surely a testament to complementary football. After the fumble recovery in the end zone, the Browns turned three of Roethlisberger’s picks into 17 points. And as the Steelers tried to rally, Mayfield twice directed the offense on long TD drives.

 “The faster, more physical team was going to win,” Priefer said.

Yet for all of the visions and the bulletin-board material, the victory reflected a resilience that said these aren’t the same old Browns.

       That was reflected with the manner in which they handled the uncertainty of the week. It showed up when they answered Steelers touchdowns with touchdowns. It came through, too, when reserve players were elevated to front-line roles due to circumstances. The secondary took a major hit with cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson, and safety Andrew Sendejo, on the COVID-19 reserve list. Yet one of the picks came from third-string safety M.J. Stewart, another from fill-in safety Sheldrick Redwine.

“The resilience and the next-man-up mentality we’ve been talking about all season — even with guys who weren’t here when we were talking about it — it permeated throughout the whole team,” said Mayfield, who completed 21 of 34 passes for 263 yards and three TDs, with a 115.2 passer rating.

 They entered the game without left guard Joel Bitonio, the seventh-year veteran who is the longest-tenure Browns player and one of only three remaining from the team that finished 0-16. Bitonio is on the COVID-19 list. His replacement, Michael Dunn, was knocked out of Sunday's game with a calf injury. (Dunn's replacement was a player named Blake Hance who had recently been signed by the team. Mayfield told NBC after the game, he met Hance for the first time in the locker room before the game, and then there he was on the field in the fourth quarter.)

Right tackle Jack Conklin was also forced out, with a hamstring injury. That was another layer of resiliency. The line was a patchwork unit, but they survived — and Mayfield was never sacked.

“Because of the adversity we’ve had this season, it’s made us a better team,” Priefer said, “a stronger team.”

Still, this feel-good story might only last for another week. Up next: the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, the top seed in the AFC playoffs.

When someone suggested to Mayfield that no one will expect the Browns to have a chance at Arrowhead Stadium, he took a breath and smiled.

 “Sounds pretty normal to me,” he said.

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