NFL playoffs: At long last the Cleveland Browns are back in the postseason
The drought is over. The Cleveland Browns are headed back to the NFL playoffs for the first time in 18 years, ending the league’s longest active dry spell.
“There were only 12,000 fans at the stadium, but it felt like 100,000 people when you were walking out,” said fan Gus Angelone, who goes by “Pumpkinhead” and wears a maniacal jack-o'-lantern painted like a Browns helmet. “Nobody wanted to leave. It was like pure euphoria.”
The Browns secured their spot Sunday with a 24-22 victory over Pittsburgh, which was resting many starters including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The AFC North rivals will meet again next Sunday night in the last game of wild-card weekend, this time in Pittsburgh. The last two times the Browns had playoff games, in 2002 and 1994, the Steelers beat them.
The Cleveland Browns survived a late rally by the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 24-22 win that pushes them into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
“We’re not satisfied,” said Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield, whose team split its season series with Pittsburgh. “We expected to be here.”
Starting this season, the playoffs have gone from six to seven teams per conference, meaning only the No. 1 seeds get a week off — Kansas City in the AFC and Green Bay in the NFC — and the remaining teams open on what the league has deemed “super wild-card weekend.”
The Saturday games, in order, are Indianapolis at Buffalo, the Rams at Seattle, and Tampa Bay at Washington.
On Sunday, it’s Baltimore at Tennessee, Chicago at New Orleans, and the Browns at the Steelers.
Several games are rematches. The Rams and Seahawks split their season series. Tennessee won in overtime at Baltimore in Week 11. And three weeks before that, New Orleans beat the Bears in overtime in Chicago.
The Colts and Bills didn’t play this season, but Indianapolis coach Frank Reich is a hero in Buffalo. He backed up Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and in January 1993 directed Buffalo to the NFL’s biggest comeback victory, a 41-38 overtime thriller against the Houston Oilers.
Buffalo hasn’t hosted a playoff game since the 1996 season and hasn’t won one since 1995.
Josh Allen assembled the best season for a quarterback in Bills history in terms of significant records. He’ll be facing a respectable Colts passing defense. Then again, the Bills scored six offensive touchdowns against Miami’s No. 1 scoring defense in a 56-26 victory Sunday. Since their week off, the Bills have won by 10, 10, 11, 29, 29, and 30 points.
Buffalo won 13 games, tying a team high set in 1990 and matched in ’91, and finished with a franchise-record 501 points scored.
New Orleans cruised to victory Sunday as well, routing Carolina 33-7, even with several key players unavailable. That included running back Alvin Kamara, who set an NFL record in Week 16 with six touchdowns against Minnesota, but was placed on the COVID/reserve list last week.
Had the Saints been scheduled to open the playoffs Saturday, Kamara would not have been available. But because their game is next Sunday, Kamara has enough time to come off the list. In fact, the whole New Orleans running back room was unavailable for the finale because those players were close contacts with Kamara. So Ty Montgomery moved over from wide receiver to run for 105 yards.
The Saints are expected to get All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas back too. He missed nine games with an ankle injury.
“We’ve had various guys go down in key positions,” said quarterback Drew Brees, sidelined for five games this season with broken ribs. “We were dealt kind of a crazy hand this week, but it says so much about our team and how we were able to respond.”
John Wolford, making his first NFL start at quarterback, helped lead the Rams to an 18-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the regular-season finale that clinched the team’s playoff spot.
The Rams return to Seattle, where they sputtered on offense in a 20-9 loss on Dec. 27. But the Rams are 5-3 against the Seahawks under coach Sean McVay, and the Seahawks had some injuries to key defensive players in their victory Sunday over San Francisco — safety Jamal Adams (shoulder) and defensive tackle Jarran Reed (oblique strain). According to reports, the expectations are that Adams and Reed will be able to play Saturday.
The biggest question surrounding the Rams is the availability of quarterback Jared Goff, who suffered a dislocated thumb on his throwing hand in that loss to the Seahawks and underwent surgery that kept him out of the 18-7 victory Sunday over Arizona. Backup John Wolford filled in ably, even though he had never thrown a pass in an NFL game.
Under McVay, the Rams have had four consecutive winning seasons, three playoff appearances, two division titles and a Super Bowl appearance.
The Titans won the AFC South championship with a 41-38 victory over Houston on Sunday, with Derrick Henry running for a career-best 250 yards to reach 2,000 for the season. Tennessee will play host to Baltimore, which ran for a club-record 404 yards against Cincinnati on Sunday, compiling 525 yards in all. It’s the third year in a row the Ravens have made the playoffs.
Justin Herbert sets another rookie record in the Chargers’ win over the Kansas City Chiefs, but will Anthony Lynn be around for Herbert’s second year?
“It’s a bunch of guys that are happy, but we’re still hungry,” rookie running back J.K. Dobbins said. “We’re glad to get this win and get in, but we know what the ultimate goal is, and that’s what’s on our minds right now.”
In his first season as Tampa Bay’s quarterback, Tom Brady has led the Buccaneers to the postseason for the first time since 2007. The former New England Patriots star and six-time Super Bowl winner threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a 44-27 victory over Atlanta on Sunday.
That secured the No. 5 seed for the Buccaneers and a playoff date with the NFC East winner, Washington, which finished 7-9 and is just the third team in 18 years to reach the postseason despite a losing record. Beware, though, because both of those previous losing clubs — Seattle in 2010, and Carolina in 2014 — won their first-round games.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, people still are pinching themselves.
“Man,” Angelone said, his voice cracking with emotion, “I don’t know how I’m going to go to work tomorrow.”
He’s a forklift driver, and his beloved Browns just did some serious heavy lifting.
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