CLEVELAND — It’s over! After the Cleveland Browns hard-fought 24-22 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium, they are once again a playoff team.
Excuse me for stating the obvious, but countless times during the last nearly two decades I’ve wondered if I would ever be able to say that again. So, I’ll say it yet again. The Cleveland Browns are a playoff team!
Getting to this point was anything but easy. The complications that come with COVID-19 protocol have made irregular work weeks the norm. Facility Open. Facility Closed. Then open again. Then closed once more. Another positive test. Multiple players out with high-risk exposure. Who’s out? Who’s in? Keeping track of it all has been nearly impossible.
Missing multiple days of practice is like heading into a final exam without studying. This Browns team has had to deal with these issues all season long. They had one day of full practice heading into Sunday’s game. Though it’s tough to measure the impact this new normal has had on each of the 32 teams, you won’t find many clubs that have been more impacted than the Browns. Yet through it all, here they are, back in the playoffs.
Tomorrow will be 18 years to the day, Jan. 5, 2003, since the Browns last tasted post-season football. Of course, that too was played in Heinz Field against the Steelers. If you’re at least in your 30s, you’ll remember that game well. Kelly Holcomb led the Browns to a 27-14 4th-quarter lead. That was before Pittsburgh put up 22 4th-quarter points. And before the Dennis Northcutt drop. For the third time that season, the Steelers came from behind to beat the Browns. The final that day, 36-33. And that was it. There wouldn’t be as much of a whisper of postseason play for 18 years.
So, the ticket is punched. The drought is over. But there are red flags everywhere as the Browns turn the page to the postseason. This regular season could have ended much differently.
It almost got away.
After a 9-3 start you could almost see the smoke pouring out of this team’s wobbly wheels. There was the thriller against the Ravens. A bitter defeat after an incredible effort from Baker Mayfield. Then was the relatively quiet win at the Giants, followed by a crushing loss to the previously one-win Jets. Then Sunday’s narrow win, which was made way more interesting than it needed to be. In fact, that’s been this team’s 2020 credo. Eight of the Browns’ 11 wins were one-score games. The other three were against the NFC East. Against teams that would go on to make the playoffs, the Browns finished a respectable 4-3. Three of those four losses were to divisional foes Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Here’s where things really get bizarre. Of the 14 teams that made the NFL playoffs, only the Browns allowed more points for the season than they scored. Examine this chart. It’s very interesting. It ranks the playoff teams 1-14 based on net points.
2. NEW ORLEANS
3. GREEN BAY
4. TAMPA BAY
6. KANSAS CITY
10. LA RAMS
It’s just one metric, but it’s troubling for sure. For comparison, the Dolphins lost their finale by 30 points, but still finished the season with + 66 net points. The Cardinals also missed the playoffs with + 43 nets points. Even seven-win Washington finished with +6 points for the season. It says a few things. Their losses have been decisive -- four of the five by a touchdown or more. Two of the five were by 30+ points, but it also says the Browns find a way to win close games. They’ve done that throughout the season. That should give them confidence if they find themselves locked in a tight game this weekend in Pittsburgh.
One of the big struggles this season for the Browns has been the out-of-balance mix between pass and run. While Sunday’s numbers were better, Mayfield threw it 27 times compared to 25 handoffs. At times this year, the Browns have been way too reliant on throwing the football. For a team that found itself locked in many close battles -- and boasts one of the best tandem of running backs in the NFL -- you would expect the Browns would lean more toward a ground game.
While the final numbers for the season were very close, 501 passes to 495 rushes, one might expect the offensive game plans to lean more heavily on Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The most glaring example of the pass heavy approach was last week in the loss to the Jets. Playing without their top four wide receivers, the Browns threw 53 times compared to just 15 handoffs. Even against the Steelers, the Browns came out determined to establish the run. On their opening drive of the game three of the six plays were Chubb runs for a total of 61 yards, including the 47-yard touchdown. Chubb was on the bench for the next drive which ended in Browns punt.
Chubb was back on the field for the next drive. He would pick up 22 yards on four carries, but after giving Cleveland a first and goal from the eight, he touched the ball just once before the Browns settled for a field goal. Chubb would watch the next series from the sidelines, a three and out. Chubb was inactive for the next series, too. A four and done to end the half. See the trend developing? Chubb had seven carries in the first half for 83 yards and a touchdown. He would get the same number of carries in the second half for just 25 yards. What was most glaring, though, about Chubb’s use was when he wasn’t in the game.
With the Steelers making their inevitable comeback the Browns had critical fourth quarter series where moving the chains could have ended the drama. And there was Chubb. Watching from the sidelines with a coat on his shoulders and a rather puzzled look on his face. This was the Browns biggest game of the season. Essentially, this was a playoff game. And in many of the games biggest moments, Chubb was a spectator. He’s your best player, a thousand-yard rusher despite missing more than two games, and he’s watching like Reggie Bush did while USC was losing a National Championship in the 2005 NCAA season to Texas. The Trojans infamously went for a 4th and two inside Texas territory with the game tied at 38 and just more than two minutes to play. Reggie Bush was the Heisman trophy winner, and he was standing next to Pete Carroll on the sidelines while LenDale White was stuffed short of the first down giving the Texas the ball. Bush wasn’t even in the game as a decoy! Vince Young proceeded to carve up the USC defense scoring on a running play with 18 seconds to play. USC gifted Texas the National Championship.
I mention all of this because I had the exact same feeling watching the Browns trying to pick up a first down on a 3rd and three from the Pittsburgh 31-yard line with 4:25 to play. Chubb is on the sidelines. Mayfield is sacked. The sack takes the Browns out of field goal range. A successful kick makes it a 10-point game. 4th down sees a Mayfield incompletion, and the table is set for a Steelers drive to potentially tie the game. Thank the football gods for the missed two-point conversion. I understand trying to limit a player’s carries. But for the love of Jim Brown does Nick Chubb look like a guy that should get only 14 touches in the biggest game of the year? Only two touches in the 4th quarter? Chubb is the straw the stirs the drink. Period! All 24 of the Browns points came on drives where Chubb had at least one touch. The Browns were shutout on the three drives where Chubb didn’t touch the football. This isn’t rocket science.
Kevin Stefanski has been incredible as the Browns first-year head coach. Record-setting in fact, and a strong case can be made for him winning the NFL Coach of the Year honors. But winning a playoff game will not happen without Chubb being the focal point of the offense. The passing game has a role. Maybe even a big role, but Chubb is the sun. Mayfield, Hunt, Landry and others are the planets. Important to be sure. But they all need Chubb to have life.
And so we turn our eyes to Sunday night. The stage is huge. As it was 18 years ago, it’s the Steelers, at Heinz Field. It took 18 years to get this mulligan. Let’s pipe this one right down the middle of the fairway on the shoulders of number 24. There’s no one I’d rather lean on in the biggest game of the season.