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CLEVELAND — Long after the game had finally ended, Browns fans hung around FirstEnergy Stadium, taking selfies and photos of one another with the field in the background.
This was a moment they’d been waiting for since the 2002 season.
Sunday, the Browns finally ended the NFL’s longest playoff drought with a 24-22 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, catapulting Cleveland into the postseason for the first time in 18 seasons.
“I’m really just happy for our fans,” first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski said. “They deserve this. And we’re happy to deliver this to them.”
The moment, however, didn’t come easily.
Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph tossed a touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 1:26 remaining to put the Steelers within two points of tying the game. But Rudolph’s two-point attempt sailed over the head of Chase Claypool.
Browns tight end Stephen Carlson recovered Pittsburgh’s onside try to seal the win.
Afterward, able to breathe again, the crowd began jumping around as House of Pain blared through the loudspeakers.
Cleveland’s victory set up a first-round rematch with the Steelers next weekend in Pittsburgh. Cleveland’s only other playoff appearance this century also came in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers won 36-33.
The Browns prevailed in Sunday’s make-or-break game against the Steelers despite battling issues related to COVID-19 all week.
Cleveland had to shut down its practice facility four times in the past eight days alone, and was forced to cancel practice Thursday while conducting contact tracing. Friday, the Browns weren’t even allowed to use their locker room, as the equipment staff turned the indoor fieldhouse into a makeshift dressing area before practice.
Over the past week, linebacker B.J. Goodson, tight end Harrison Bryant, safety Andrew Sendejo and cornerback Denzel Ward — all starters — tested positive for the virus, knocking them out of Sunday’s game. The Browns were also without offensive assistant coaches Chad O’Shea and Bill Callahan because of COVID-19 protocols.
But the Steelers rested several key players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, having already clinched the AFC North Division. The Browns did just enough to hold on for the win.
The last time Cleveland made the playoffs, Stefanski, 38, was an honorable mention All-Ivy League safety for Penn.
Star players Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Myles Garrett were all just in grade school.
Before kickoff, Butch Davis, the Browns’ head coach the last time they made the playoffs, tweeted support for the team.
These Browns finished the regular season 11-5, the franchise’s best record since 1994, when Bill Belichick was the coach.
That was also the last time Cleveland won a playoff game, though in the second round the Steelers knocked those Browns out of the playoffs, as well.
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