Well JuJu, these really aren’t the same old Browns anymore.
As if the Browns needed any more motivation to march into Heinz Field and beat the Steelers for the first time since 2003, Pittsburgh receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster disrespected them during the week, inspiring them to play with their hair on fire and take the ball away five times Sunday en route to a 48-37 victory over the Steelers.
By the time it was over, they had picked off Ben Roethlisberger — who threw for 501 yards — four times and won the turnover battle 5-0. He also threw four TDs.
The victory — in their first playoff game since the 2002 season and their first playoff victory since the 1994 season — earned them a trip to the divisional round next week in Kansas City against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs (14-2).
The game is Sunday at 3:05 p.m. on CBS.
The blowout was achieved with their head coach Kevin Stefanski stuck in his basement with COVID-19 and not having any sense of taste or smell, and special teams coach Mike Priefer, who was born in Cleveland and grew up a Browns fan, serving in the role of head coach.
If all goes well, Stefanski will be back on the sideline next Sunday in Kansas City.
The Browns had one practice all week, on Friday, and an in-person walkthrough Saturday before heading to Pittsburgh.
“I really want to congratulate our fans. I’m one of them, so I know what it means,” Priefer said after the victory. “That was a great team win. We played in all three phases, and that was a huge win for our team and for our city.
“I told these guys I admire them so much. I respect them. They had so much adversity in terms of schedule changes — they never batted an eye. They took every meeting so seriously. … As coaches, we were probably a little more concerned then they were. .. They had a ton of resiliency and they’ve done it all year long.”
How do we know that Smith-Schuster’s words fired up the Browns?
Browns defensive end Myles Garrett vowed on Friday that they’d go out and prove him wrong.
Then about 4 1/2 hours before the game, Baker Mayfield (3 TDs, 0 INTs) posted a message on Instagram, “Browns is the Browns,’’ a snippet of the receiver’s inflammatory quote, in which he said, “They’re still the same Browns that I’ve played every year. I think they’re nameless gray faces. They have a couple of good players on their team. But at the end of the day … the Browns is the Browns. ….I’m just happy we’re playing them again.”
“It wasn’t about that, specifically,” Mayfield said his “Browns is the Browns” response earlier Sunday. “It’s the same quote, yeah, but we believe in the people in this room no matter what. … We knew that everybody was counting us out. We knew what mentality we were going to have, and that was to cut it loose and give it everything we had.”
Never mind that the Browns were without four players — including starting left guard Joel Bitonio and cornerback Denzel Ward — and four assistant coaches because of the virus.
They also lost right tackle Jack Conklin to a hamstring injury in the second quarter. And then Michael Dunn, Bitonio’s replacement who was elevated from the practice squad Saturday, was hurt in the second half. He was replaced by Blake Hance, signed by the Browns last weekend from the Jets’ practice squad.
“Michael got hurt and a guy named Blake who I literally introduced myself to before the game stepped up in the fourth quarter,” Mayfield said in a postgame interview with NBC.
The Browns, who hadn’t won a playoff game since a 20-13 victory over Patriots in the wild card round after the 1994 season, came into the game with the mantra of “We Want More’’ and their message was loud and clear that making the playoffs wasn’t what they came for.
On Friday, Garrett served noticed to the Steelers that “these guys are hungry, and we’re going to take it to them.”
And they did just that, with Karl Joseph recovering center Maurkice Pouncey’s airmailed snap in the end zone on the first play of the game to make it 7-0 just 14 seconds into the game. Take that, JuJu. Take that 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh. Take that Big Ben, who was 23-2-1 against the Browns.
By the time the first quarter was over, the Browns had scored an NFL playoff-record 28 points thanks to two more takeaways. One was an M.J. Stewart interception and 30-yard return on their second drive that led to a 40-yard Jarvis Landry catch and run for a TD; the other a Sheldrick Redwine pick on a tipped ball later in the quarter that led to a bruising 8-yard Kareem Hunt that made it 28-0.
But the Browns had one more takeaway left in them in the first half, an interception by Porter Gustin off a batted pass by Vincent Taylor. The Browns, who already had lost Conklin by then, didn’t score any points off that third interception, but why get greedy, right?
The Steelers finally got on the scoreboard with 1:44 left on a 1-yard run by James Conner, but Mayfield stormed back with a 7-yard TD pass to Austin Hooper to make it 35-7 before Chris Boswell nailed a 49-yarder as time expired to trim the deficit to 35-10.
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SOURCE: Cleveland.com, Mary Kay Cabot