(CBS Pittsburgh) — The Cleveland Browns jumped out to an early lead in Sunday night’s Wild Card game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. And then they hung on to win and advance. The old Browns might have let the game slip away. While the teams have split regular season games the last two seasons, Cleveland had only beaten Pittsburgh seven times over the last 20 years. Then again, the old Browns, having missed the playoffs since 2002, wouldn’t have made the playoffs in the first place.
What makes the Browns’ Wild Card win even more impressive is the circumstances, largely brought on by COVID. As NFL On CBS contributor Amy Trask points out, “no offensive line coach no defensive backs coach no tight end coach, other assistants missing, and of course, the head coach wasn’t there. They were also missing umpteen players, and they hadn’t had a practice all week. They finally were able to get together on the field on Friday, but that was more of a walk through, than it was a practice. So you head into a game against a divisional rival without having practice more than one walkthrough without a head coach, without umpteen players, without position coaches. And yet they found a way to win.”
These are the new Browns. And they’ll get another chance to prove their merit, when they meet the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. The Chiefs, who went 14-2 in the regular season and earned the top seed in the conference, enjoyed a first-round bye. As defending Super Bowl champion, they’re still the favorite to return.
But the Chiefs can’t look past a Browns team that scored 48 points on a strong Steelers defense. And they did it without head coach — and lead play caller — Kevin Stefanski on the sideline and All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio anchoring the line. Cleveland jumped out to a 28 point lead in the first quarter and led 35-10 at halftime. Pittsburgh pulled within a couple scores at times in the second half, close enough to suggest a forthcoming collapse. But that collapse never happened.
Baker Mayfield went 21-34 for 263 yards and three touchdowns. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combined for 124 yards on 26 carries. The Browns defense limited the Steelers’ moribund ground game to just 52 yards and picked off Ben Roethlisberger four times. But Big Ben also racked up 501 yards passing, going 47-68, and he did it without being sacked. Juju Smith-Schuster caught 13 balls for 157 yards; Diontae Johnson caught 11 for 117 yards.
All that passing production raises the question of whether Cleveland will be able to contain Patrick Mahomes and a Kansas City passing attack that led the NFL through the air during the regular season with 303.4 yards per game. Mahomes, of course, is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. And he has done plenty this season to suggest he could do it again. The $500 million man put up 4,740 yards passing and 38 touchdowns, against just six interceptions. His arsenal of weapons is unmatched. Tight end Travis Kelce was second in the league in terms of yards (1,416) and top five in receptions (105) and receiving touchdowns (11). Speedster wide receiver Tyreek Hill was top 10 in receiving yards (1,276) and second in receiving touchdowns (15). And then there’s receiver Sammy Watkins, who isn’t exactly slow, and the dangerous rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire out of the backfield. Le’Veon Bell is also available, should Edwards-Helaire not be fully healed from his ankle and hip injuries. The list goes on.
That’s a lot for a Browns defense that ranked in the bottom half of teams, in terms of passing yards (247.6) and points (26.1) allowed per game this past season. Lingering injuries could limit the Browns even further. Defensive end Myles Garrett, who had 12 sacks during the regular season, is nursing a shoulder injury and has been limited in practice this week. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson has been limited in practice by a neck injury. Linebacker B.J. Goodson did not practice Wednesday because of a shoulder injury.
The Browns’ best defense might be controlling the ball on offense with a steady diet of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Chubb topped 1,000 yards this season and found the end zone 12 times in his 12 games. He averaged a hefty 5.6 yards per carry, second in the NFL among running backs. Hunt gained 841 yards, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. The Chiefs run defense has struggled against the run for much of the season, giving up 122.1 yards per game.
“Cleveland’s running game is spectacular, and, as we all know, everything works together,” says Trask. “The better you run, the more you can pass. The better you pass the more you can run. So, if Kansas City, puts all of its focus on stopping Cleveland’s running game, that could make things a bit easier for Baker Mayfield in terms of passing. Cleveland does have one of the most spectacular run games we’ve seen this season. And by the way, Kareem Hunt going back to Kansas City. There are the issues involving his release. We don’t need to go into all of that now. But he goes back in with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.”
One thing the Browns won’t have to contend with is the fans at Arrowhead. “…That stadium is not going to be packed to the gills, every single seat full of Kansas City fans,” says Trask. “Because I found during my career, that the hardest road environment in which we played in was Kansas City, when that stadium is filled with fans. It is cacophonous. That may help Cleveland.”
But will that make the difference in a divisional matchup that has the Chiefs favored by 10 points? “Sometimes I think this is Kansas City,” says Trask. “Andy Reid is a phenomenal head coach. Patrick Mahomes… when you watch him, what comes to my mind is magic. But there’s something very, very special about Cleveland. And I know I sound like I’m flopping back and forth, but that’s because I’m flopping back and forth.”
The Browns play the Chiefs, Sunday, January 17 @ 3:05 p.m. ET on CBS.