David Shepard puts Browns’ playoff win in perspective

The Cleveland Browns stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, and as David Shepard observes, they made history along the way

CBS Sports Radio Weekend
January 11, 2021 - 4:45 pm
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The first week of the season, the Cleveland Browns lost to the Baltimore Ravens 38-6. They then found themselves on a three-game winning streak. This wasn’t a true measure of how likely a playoff run was since the three teams they were victorious over were the Cincinnati Bengals, the Washington Football Team and the Dallas Cowboys. The commonality between all three teams is a losing record this season. Despite the 4-1 record for the Browns at the time, the real test of legitimacy would be how they did against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6. It was no contest. The Steelers won in convincing fashion, 38-7. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was mediocre, to put it mildly, finishing with just 119 passing yards, one passing touchdown and two interceptions. 

Mayfield didn’t come into the game playing poorly for the season, either. For the first time in the 2020 campaign, he had a game in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. His 119 yards in the air was a season-worst. However, unlike the past two-plus decades of regressing and unraveling for the Browns, Baker’s inner fortitude and confidence never wavered. In the next 11 games, he had just TWO interceptions, matching what he had in that Week 6 game alone. You know what he did yesterday? 263 yards in the air, three passing touchdowns and ZERO interceptions. He went from being a liability in Week 6 to being the best player on the field in their playoff win against a heavily favorited Steelers squad.

Do you know which NFL team has won the most Super Bowls? It’s the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, with six. So when the Steelers for the first time in franchise history began this season 11-0, that speaks volumes about how truly unique that is. The Steelers became just the 13th team in NFL history to start a season 11-0. Before this season, 75% of the time when a team began a season 11-0, they would find themselves in the Super Bowl. Not only did the Steelers not match that feat, they became the first team to begin a season 11-0 and find themselves on the wrong side of a defeat in a playoff WILD CARD game.  

The Browns averaged 15.5 points per game against the Steelers in the regular season. They more than tripled that on Sunday, finishing with 48 points. The Browns nearly doubled their points per game regular season average against the Steelers in just the FIRST quarter alone. The Browns dismantled the Steelers in that first frame 28-0. What makes this even more inconceivable is they did it without first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and their best cornerback, Denzel Ward. They were all back in Cleveland after testing positive for COVID-19.

Given the key missing pieces alone, how could the Browns overcome this? They responded and then some by putting up the biggest first half points by a road team in NFL postseason history. This came against a Steelers team with such a rich postseason history, but history was made in the Browns favor Sunday. The 48 points the Browns put up is the most points the Steelers have ever allowed in a playoff game. The Browns, for crying out loud, in the previous five seasons didn’t just miss the playoffs, they averaged just THREE wins per season. To go from those futile seasons to the very next season winning a postseason game against a team that started 11-0, that is beyond even a Browns fan’s best-case scenario.

The last Browns postseason victory came in the 1994 NFL season. Baker Mayfield wasn’t even born yet. Big Ben had four playoff victories in the 2005 NFL season alone. The Steelers as a franchise since the Browns’ last postseason victory have made it to FOUR Super Bowls. In a year in which the only thing predictable has been unpredictability, that was demonstrated in every which way with what we saw Sunday night. For a franchise and fan base salivating for success, this was the most joyous, captivating and euphoric unpredictability one could have hoped for. My hope is that this shows every single NFL team what a difference a year makes. You would get no argument from any Browns fan about that premise. The beauty of sports is you just never know.

CBS Sports Radio producer David Shepard is a former ESPN researcher, a former Division I college basketball practice player, and the host of The Good Shepard YouTube channel. Follow him on Twitter @TheGoodShepard_.