Sunday's NFL: Browns end playoff drought, survive late Steelers rally
Cleveland — Squeezing the game ball in his left hand, Baker Mayfield looked at the giant scoreboard showing highlights of Cleveland’s glory days.
In the stands, masked fans hugged, high-fived and took one last look at the final score — Cleveland 24, Pittsburgh 22 — just to make sure.
The Browns, winless just three seasons ago and so bad for so long, are in the playoffs.
The NFL’s longest postseason drought is over.
“I am really just happy for our fans,” said first-year coach Kevin Stefanski. “They deserve this. They have been waiting for this and we are happy to deliver that to them.”
Mayfield threw a touchdown pass and had several big runs in the second half as the Browns made the playoffs for first time since 2002 on Sunday, surviving a late Mason Rudolph-led rally to beat the rival Steelers, who sat quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and several other starters.
After nearly two decades of dysfunction, bad draft picks, coaching changes and front-office purges, the Browns (11-5), who went 0-16 in 2017, are still playing in 2021.
It wasn’t easy. They nearly blew a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, but stopped Pittsburgh’s 2-point conversion attempt, recovered an onside kick with 1:22 left and then ran out the clock.
A week of COVID-19 disruptions concluded in celebration as the Browns wrapped up their big reward: a third matchup this season against the AFC North champion Steelers, in Pittsburgh next weekend.
“We’re not satisfied,” Mayfield said. “We expected to be here. … All we wanted was a chance, and now we have one.”
Nick Chubb rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown for the Browns, who were up 24-9 early in the fourth before Rudolph brought back the Steelers (12-4).
Instead of Roethlisberger, who is 23-2-1 in his career against the Browns, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin started Rudolph and left defensive stars T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward along with center Maurkice Pouncey back in Pittsburgh.
Big Ben and the boys will be back in a week.
“I wasn’t worried about next week,” Tomlin said. “I was worried about this game and rightfully so.”
Rudolph’s 2-yard TD pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 1:23 left pulled the Steelers within 24-22. But the backup QB badly overthrew rookie Chase Claypool on the 2-point attempt, and Browns tight end Stephen Carlson fell on the ensuing kick under a pile of bodies.
The Browns only had to run out the clock to secure the win and Mayfield, who earlier had a key 28-yard run, scampered for 3 yards on 3rd-and-2 with 1:10 left.
Before the scoreboard clock in FirstEnergy Stadium ticked off its final seconds, most of the 12,000 fans — there were some Terrible Towel wavers — cheered wildly and Browns players danced off the sideline and onto the field.
“This is what we imagined,” said defensive star Myles Garrett, who didn’t win a game during his 2017 rookie season.
The Browns and their passionate fan base endured 197 losses, 14 double-digit-loss seasons and seven coaches since the last playoff appearance.
Stefanski’s team barely practiced this week because of COVID-19 positive tests and protocols and went into its most important game in years without six players, including top cornerback Denzel Ward, and three assistant coaches.
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 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 last week, celebrated his score by rifling the ball against the padded end zone wall.
For the moment he got to Cleveland in 2018, Landry’s goal was to get the Browns back to the postseason.
“I’m just excited to play football this time of year,” he said. “I don’t care who we play.”
Garrett and Rudolph barely crossed paths — until after the game.
It was their first meeting in Cleveland since Garrett tore off Rudolph’s helmet and hit him with it, one of the ugliest on-field incidents in recent NFL history that led to a suspension for Garrett.
“I just told him, ‘Good game, and see you all in a week,’” Garrett said.
“I told him good luck,” Rudolph said. “A lot of respect for him.”
►Tennessee 41, (at) Houston 38: The Tennessee Titans won the AFC South. All it took was Derrick Henry surpassing 2,000 yards rushing and rookie Sam Sloman’s 37-yard field goal that bounced off the upright and through for a victory over the Houston Texans.
Henry ran for a career-high 250 yards in the victory that gave Tennessee (11-5) its first AFC South title since 2008 and is the fifth straight loss for the Texans (4-12). The Titans needed the air game to set up Sloman’s winner, though: a 52-yard reception by A.J. Brown moments after a 51-yard field goal by Houston tied it with 18 seconds left.
Tennessee will host Baltimore (11-5) next weekend.
Henry finished the regular season with a franchise-record 2,027 yards rushing to become the eighth player in NFL history to run for 2,000 yards. He passed Chris Johnson, who had 2,006 yards in 2009.
Henry had touchdown runs of 52 and 6 yards in his third straight 200-yard rushing game against the Texans.
Tannehill threw for 216 yards and a touchdown and ran for two more scores. Watson threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns with an interception.
►Washington 20, Philadelphia 14: Alex Smith threw two touchdown passes and Washington beat the Eagles to capture the lowly NFC East.
The Washington franchise, which changed its nickname in July after years of protests about it, became the first team in the Super Bowl era to reach the playoffs following a 2-7 start.
Led by Smith and first-year coach Ron Rivera, who overcame a form of skin cancer during the season, Washington (7-9) is the third team to win a division title with a losing record during a full 16-game season. Seattle (2010) and Carolina (2014) previously did it and each won a playoff game.
Washington earned the NFC’s No. 4 seed and will host Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) in a wild-card game next Saturday night. A loss would’ve given the New York Giants (6-10) the division title.
Smith threw a 13-yard TD pass to Logan Thomas in the second quarter to give Washington a 17-14 lead it never relinquished after Jalen Hurts scored on a pair of 6-yard TD runs for Philadelphia (4-11-1).
The 36-year-old Smith began the season as the No. 3 quarterback, a remarkable comeback following 17 surgeries on his leg and a life-threatening infection put his career in jeopardy. He led Washington’s turnaround, going 4-1 before missing the previous two games with a calf strain.
Smith tossed a 5-yard pass to Terry McLaurin to give Washington a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. After Kamren Curl intercepted Hurts’ pass, Dustin Hopkins kicked a 42-yard field goal to make it 10-0.
Smith finished 22-of-32 for 162 yards and two picks with the two TDs.
►Green Bay 35, (at) Chicago 16: Aaron Rodgers threw for four touchdowns, breaking his franchise record for scoring passes in a season, and the Packers clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
The Packers (13-3) earned a bye while winning their sixth in a row and beat Chicago (8-8) for the 19th time in 22 games, counting the postseason.
The Bears are headed to the playoffs for the second time in coach Matt Nagy’s three years despite the loss because Arizona fell to the Los Angeles Rams. Chicago will be at New Orleans (12-4).
Rodgers joined Peyton Manning (2004 and 2013) as the only players to throw for at least 45 touchdowns in multiple seasons. He now has 48, surpassing his previous high of 45 in his first MVP season of 2011.
Rodgers completed 19 of 24 passes for 240 yards without an interception and had a 147.9 rating. He also improved to 21-5 against Chicago, counting the postseason.
►Las Vegas 32, (at) Denver 31: Darren Waller caught Derek Carr’s 2-point conversion pass with 24 seconds left, and the Raiders rallied to beat the Broncos despite committing four turnovers.
The Broncos (5-11) reached the Las Vegas 45-yard line with 9 seconds left and Brandon McManus’ 63-yard field-goal try was blocked by Maxx Crosby (Eastern Michigan), who also blocked McManus’ record 70-yard attempt on the last play of the first half.
Josh Jacobs’ 1-yard TD run capped a seven-play, 77-yard drive for the Raiders (8-8), who snapped a nine-game losing streak in season finales, and for the second straight year, Jon Gruden went for 2 and the win instead of a tie.
Last year, Shelby Harris’ batted-down pass preserved Denver’s 16-15 win, but Harris wasn’t here this time, having gone on IR last week with a knee injury.
After the game, there was a brief scuffle near the Broncos sideline that quickly broke up.
Rookie Jerry Jeudy bounced back from a five-drop performance last week with a tiebreaking 92-yard touchdown catch from Drew Lock with 6:29 remaining to put the Broncos ahead 31-24.
►(At) NY Giants 23, Dallas 19: Rookie Xavier McKinney intercepted Dallas’ Andy Dalton in the end zone with 1:15 remaining, giving the Giants a victory over the Cowboys and a chance at an unprecedented, six-win playoff berth.
New York’s postseason chances hang on the Philadelphia Eagles, who play Washington on Sunday night. Washington would claim the NFC East with a win or tie. Otherwise, the Giants will take it for the first time since 2011.
The Giants (6-10) would be the first team to qualify for the playoffs with six victories in a 16-game regular season and the first to do so after starting 1-7. Hardly how first-year coach Joe Judge planned it, but enough to spur New York’s pursuit of its first playoff appearance since 2016.
Far from .500, still full of hope.
Dallas (6-10) nearly ripped that away. Dalton rallied Dallas with a bloody left hand after being stepped on by defensive tackle Leonard Williams in the third quarter, and he had the Cowboys on the doorstep when Williams got close again.
Dalton scrambled around on a broken play, avoided being sacked by Williams for a fourth time, but ended up floating one into the middle of the end zone. McKinney caught it easily, his first career interception.
►Seattle 26, San Francisco 23: Russell Wilson connected on two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Tyler Lockett and the Seahawks rallied for a win over the 49ers to end the season on a four-game winning streak.
Seattle (12-4) had a chance to earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs but stayed at No. 3 after the New Orleans Saints and top-seeded Green Bay Packers both won. The Seahawks will host the division-rival Los Angeles Rams in the wild-card round next weekend.
Seattle (12-4) had a slow start and appeared in serious trouble when Jeff Wilson Jr. ran for a 7-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to push the 49ers ahead 16-6.
But the Seahawks responded with their first touchdown when Russell Wilson avoided pressure and hit Lockett for a diving 6-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone. Jason Myers missed the extra point and the Seahawks trailed 16-12.
Seattle forced the 49ers to punt on the ensuing possession and then methodically marched 85 yards on 14 plays and scored the go-ahead touchdown on fourth down on Wilson’s 4-yard throw to Lockett. Wilson finished 20 of 36 passing for 171 yards. Lockett had 12 catches for 90 yards.
Alex Collins ran for an 8-yard touchdown with 1:49 left to put the Seahawks ahead 26-16.
The 49ers (6-10) were eliminated from playoff contention a few weeks ago and have been based in Arizona for more than a month because of coronavirus restrictions in their home county. The team still pushed the playoff-bound Seahawks all afternoon.
►(At) Indianapolis 28, Jacksonville 14: Jonathan Taylor rushed for a franchise-record 253 yards and two scores, capping the Colts’ playoff-clinching victory with a 45-yard touchdown run with 3:35 to go.
Philip Rivers threw for another score and the Colts defense shut out the Jaguars over the final quarter to help preserve the victory.
Indianapolis (11-5) will make its first postseason appearance since 2018 and its second since 2015. The Colts will be the No. 7 seed and face Buffalo on the road.
Jacksonville (1-15) lost its final 15 games and will have the No. 1 overall draft pick in April.
Taylor was sensational, carrying 30 times while joining Hall of Famer Edgerrin James as the only players in franchise history to run for 200 yards in a game. James set the franchise record of 219 yards at Seattle in October 2000. James also rushed for 204 yards at Chicago in November 2004.
►(At) Tampa Bay 44, Atlanta 27: Tom Brady threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns, helping playoff-bound Tampa Bay clinch the fifth seed in the NFC with a regular season-ending win over Atlanta.
The victory, which means the Bucs (11-5) will face the NFC East champion, Washington or the Giants, on the road in the club’s first postseason game in 13 years, may have come with a steep cost.
Star receiver Mike Evans was carted to the locker room with a left knee injury late in the first quarter and did not return.
Brady threw touchdown passes of 29 and 4 yards to Chris Godwin. The six-time Super Bowl champion also tossed scoring passes of 25 and 30 yards to Antonio Brown, finishing with a Tampa Bay single-season record 40 in his first season with the Bucs.
Brady also joined Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Dan Marino as the only players with multiple seasons of at least 40 TD passes. Rodgers has done it three times, the others twice.
Matt Ryan completed 29 of 44 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns for the Falcons (4-12).
►(At) Buffalo 56, Miami 26: Josh Allen and Buffalo placed an emphatic stamp on a breakout season with a rout of Miami in a game the Dolphins could have clinched a playoff berth with a win.
Miami’s postseason hopes now rest on whether the 1-14 Jacksonville Jaguars can upset the Indianapolis Colts later in the day. With a win or a tie, the Colts would clinch a playoff berth and eliminate Miami.
The Dolphins (10-6) didn’t get results they needed to clinch their third playoff berth in 18 years, after Cleveland beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore routed Cincinnati.
Allen threw three touchdown passes and Isaiah McKenzie scored three times, including returning a punt return 84 yards, in a game Buffalo blew the game open by scoring on four consecutive second-quarter possessions.
With the win, the Bills (13-3) clinched the AFC’s No. 2 playoff seed in completing a season in which they matched a single-season record for wins, set in both 1990 and ’91, and won their first East Division title in 25 years.
►(At) New England 28, NY Jets 14: Cam Newton had three touchdown passes and caught another, and New England rallied to beat New York.
The win snapped a three-game losing streak for New England (7-9), which earned its 10th straight win over the Jets (2-14), but won’t be playing in the postseason for the first time since the 2008 season.
It marked Newton’s first game with multiple passing touchdowns this season. He finished 21 of 30 for 242 yards. He also ran 11 times for 79 yards.
New England trailed 14-7 early in the third quarter, but outscored the Jets 21-0 the rest of the way in what was likely Adam Gase’s final game as New York’s coach.
Sam Darnold, whose future with the Jets is also uncertain, was 23-of-34 for 266 yards, a touchdown and two second-half interceptions.
►Baltimore 38, (at) Cincinnati 3: The Ravens used a club-record 404 yards rushing to clinch a playoff spot, beating Cincinnati as Lamar Jackson threw three touchdown passes and became the first NFL quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in two consecutive seasons.
The Ravens rolled up 525 total yards, and the 404 rushing yards were the most surrendered by a Bengals defense. Rookie J.K. Dobbins rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns, including a 72-yard scoring romp in the third quarter.
Baltimore won its fifth straight game and advanced to the postseason for a third consecutive season.
Jackson rushed for 97 yards and threw for 113 before taking a seat in the third quarter. He has run or passed for at least one touchdown in 36 straight starts, the longest active streak in the NFL.
Another Ravens' playoff appearance didn’t look likely just a few weeks ago. They started 5-1 but slumped amid a COVID-19 outbreak and injuries to key players. They rebounded to win four straight and put themselves in a position to secure the postseason spot heading into the season finale against Cincinnati (4-11-1) which had won two straight.
Baltimore (11-5) scored on its first two drives, a 34-yard Justin Tucker field goal followed by a 43-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Miles Boykin. The Ravens extended the lead to 17-0 when Jackson capped a clock-eating 93-yard drive with an 18-yard TD pass to Marquise Brown.
►LA Chargers 38, (at) Kansas City 21: Justin Herbert threw for 302 yards and accounted for four touchdowns against a team of mostly Kansas City backups, and the Chargers rolled to victory as the Chiefs turned their attention to the postseason and Los Angeles to the precarious future of coach Anthony Lynn.
The Chiefs (14-2) already had wrapped up the No. 1 seed and the AFC’s lone first-round bye, so coach Andy Reid chose rest over reps by sitting quarterback Patrick Mahomes, safety Tyrann Mathieu and several of his best players.
Meanwhile, reports surfaced earlier in the day that Lynn could be fired as soon as Monday, when he is expected to meet with ownership. The Chargers (7-9) finished the year with four straight wins, and Herbert has emerged as a franchise QB, but Lynn’s fate may have been sealed when they missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
Mike Williams, fill-in tight end Donald Parham Jr. and running back Austin Ekeler had touchdown catches for the Chargers, though Ekeler’s season ended with a concussion late in the first half. Herbert also sneaked for a score and Los Angeles added a sack of Chiefs quarterback Chad Henne (Michigan) for a safety as the game turned into a rout.
Henne, making his first start since September 2014 with Jacksonville, threw for 218 yards with his first two TD passes in 2,303 days. Byron Pringle caught the first early in the game and Darwin Thompson grabbed the second late.
New Orleans 33, (at) Carolina 7: Drew Brees threw for 201 yards and three touchdowns, the Saints had five interceptions and New Orleans defeated the Panthers to wrap up the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.
The Saints will host the seventh-seeded Chicago Bears in the wild-card round next weekend.
Ty Montgomery ran for 105 yards on 18 carries for the Saints (12-4), who became the first team to sweep the NFC South by going 6-0 since the division was formed in 2002.
The Saints still managed to run for 156 yards despite playing without Alvin Kamara, who tied an NFL record with six TDs in a Week 16 win over the Vikings, and Latavius Murray. Both running backs were placed on the COVID-19/reserve list.
Taysom Hill had 41 yards rushing, including a 3-yard TD run.
Carolina’s Teddy Bridgewater was benched midway through the third quarter after throwing his second interception in the end zone into double coverage. The former Saints QB finished 13-of-23 for 176 yards and was replaced by P.J. Walker, who was intercepted three times.
The Panthers (5-11) were also without their top two running backs Christian McCaffrey and Mike Davis due to injury and managed just 74 yards rushing.