In a weird, Steelers in 2020 kind of way, what happened against the Browns on Sunday in Cleveland put the finishing touches on getting the team ready for the playoffs. And because the team is playoff-ready, it can turn its focus to preparing for each individual opponent as its work to advance in the single-elimination tournament begins next weekend in the Wild Card Round.
The Steelers boarded buses and traveled to Cleveland to play the 2020 regular season finale, which was a game that meant nothing to them and everything to the Browns. Having already secured a playoff spot a couple of weeks ago and then the AFC North Division championship last weekend, there was nothing of substance at stake for the Steelers, while the Browns were playing to snap the longest running playoff-less streak in American professional sports and throw a bone to a fan base they have treated like dawg poo since returning to the NFL for the 1999 season. No pressure.
Based on the respective prizes at stake for the competing teams and the emotion attached to the Browns' quest, plus the fact the lineup the Steelers were presenting would be without – for a variety of reasons. – Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Terrell Edmunds, Chris Boswell, Joe Haden, and Eric Ebron, it could've been a blowout. And when Nick Chubb raced 47 yards through the Steelers defense for a touchdown on Cleveland's sixth offensive play of the game for a quick 7-0 deficit, it probably should've been a blowout.
But it wasn't. Not even close to a blowout, either on the scoreboard or on the grass inside FirstEnergy Stadium. In fact, the Browns had to sweat the 24-22 outcome until they finally could afford to get into victory formation with 27 seconds left on the clock. And as Baker Mayfield took the snap and touched his knee to the ground to end the game and 18 years of going home as soon as the regular season was over, the Browns and their fans knew they had been in a fight.
"I don't know that we are looking for takeaways," said Coach Mike Tomlin during the postgame when asked for his takeaways from the game as his team heads into the playoffs. "We came. We fought. We came up short. We accept responsibility for that. We acknowledge kind of how we came up short. We knew we had to take care of the ball. We knew that if we didn't take care of the ball, we needed to support our offensive unit. When you really look at it, that sequence is probably the most significant in terms of determining the outcome of the game."
The Steelers took the punch that was Chubb's 47-yard touchdown, the longest for Cleveland against Pittsburgh since Jim Brown did something similar in the 1960s, and they started to fight back. Initially, that fight was manifested in small, potentially insignificant ways. Such as the Browns possession early in the second quarter that began at their 25-yard line with them holding a 7-0 lead.
Six plays later, Cleveland had a first-and-goal at the Steelers 4-yard line, but that's when Minkah Fitzpatrick broke up a pass for tight end David Njoku in the end zone on first down, and Jayrone Elliott followed by dropping Chubb for a 1-yard loss on second down. When Mayfield couldn't squeeze in a third-down pass to Njoku in the end zone because of tight coverage from Fitzpatrick, the Browns settled for a goal-to-go field goal and a 10-0 lead that should've been 14-0.
The Steelers then answered with their own field goal that capped a drive including a third-and-11 conversion when Mason Rudolph dropped a beauty into Diontae Johnson's hands for a 41-yard gain. From that point, it was on. And it was on to the degree that for the rest of the afternoon it was almost impossible to know for sure which team was playing for its first playoff appearance since a time when tweeting was something only parakeets and which team was airmailing some of its top players into the postseason having clinched its spot weeks earlier.
When it ended, the Steelers finished with a better conversion percentage on possession downs, 52.6 percent to 42.9 percent; more total net yards, 394-358; more net yards passing, 309-166; more sacks, 4-1; more tackles for loss, 6-3; fewer penalties, 4-2; and more offensive plays of 25-plus yards, 5-3.
There was another category in which the Steelers led the Browns, and that was turnovers, 1-0. Rudolph's third-quarter interception set up the Browns offense at the Steelers 20-yard line, and the touchdown resulting from it turned out to be the points that decided the outcome of the game. Tomlin undoubtedly would view the uncalled hit to the head Rudolph took in the process of throwing that interception as an excuse, but CBS rules analyst Gene Steratore said on the broadcast it most certainly was a penalty and should've been called.
"We just did not make enough plays," said Tomlin. "We turned the ball over, and then we did not get a stop after that turnover. They scored a touchdown after that turnover. When you really look at it, that's kind of the difference in the game. We have to take care of the ball, and if we don't, we have to support our offensive unit. That's probably the significance in terms of the outcome of the game. I can't say enough about the efforts of the guys."
In typical Tomlin fashion, all of that is now in the rearview mirror with all focus turning to preparations for the Wild Card Round, which for the Steelers means a rematch with the Browns set to kick off at 8:15 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 10 at Heinz Field. Some 48 hours before kickoff of the regular season finale, Tomlin answered a question about the kind of team he'll be taking into that playoff game this way:
"One that has been in some battles and thus is battle-tested," he said. "We've seen enough success to believe in ourselves. We've seen enough failure to have humility, and I think we move and proceed without fear. When we walk into stadiums, we understand anyone can be beaten, or that anyone can beat anyone else, and that's just the climate that is the NFL postseason. That's an exciting thing. We're ready to live out our dreams."