Analysis

Cleveland Browns finally deliver fans postseason berth behind a confident Baker Mayfield

The Browns have what they call a 24-hour rule, meaning they move on from a game by the next day, regardless of the outcome.

There is no such rule for Cleveland fans, which is good because none of them would adhere to it following Sunday's 24-22 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers that secured a postseason berth for the first time since 2002.

When your team had missed 17 consecutive playoffs -- what had been the longest active streak in the NFL -- with 13 last-place and three third-place finishes in the division during that time, when it had gone through nine head coaches (11 if you include interims) and is only three years removed from suffering the embarrassment of an 0-16 campaign, you celebrate long and hard, both domestically and internationally.

"It's unbelievable the Browns made it!" emailed Stefan Willi, president of the Switzerland chapter of Cleveland Browns Backers Worldwide. "It's, for me, the third time the Browns have reached the playoffs, but the first time I'm able to watch. In 1994 and 2002, we had no televised games."

The central European chapter was founded in 2017, the same year the Browns joined the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only franchises to lose all 16 games in a season. It lists 14 members, many of whom were in a chat room together Sunday. Some couldn't help but reflect on the "Cleveland Clowns" jokes they have endured over the years.

"After the game we had members who wrote they sit on the couch and cry tears of joy!" Willi emailed. "For some fans, it will be [their] first playoff game."

The announced attendance in FirstEnergy Stadium was 11,989 due to COVID-19 restrictions, but years from now, if not decades from now, that figure is likely to increase tenfold or hundredfold due to all the people who'll swear they were in the stands as "Cleveland Rocks" blared from the public-address system and footage of former Browns greats appeared on the giant video screens.

The relatively small group that actually was there hopped and hugged and high-fived after quarterback Baker Mayfield took the shotgun snap on third-and-2 with just over a minute to play, rolled right and followed a crunching block from halfback Kareem Hunt to gain 3 yards, securing the win and setting up a rematch in the first round of the playoffs next weekend in Pittsburgh.

For Mayfield, the play call was the ultimate expression of confidence. A week earlier, he had lost two fumbles in a humbling defeat against the New York Jets, who had entered the game at 1-13. But on this day, when the Browns (11-5) absolutely needed a play to be made, first-year coach Kevin Stefanski went to a play offensive line coach Bill Callahan had designed specifically for Mayfield.

"Baker wanted this one, I can promise you that," Stefanski said. "He was already on to this game on the airplane (ride from New York). Just in talking to him, I could see that determination."

Mayfield finished 17-of-27 passing for 196 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He also rushed six times for 44 yards, including a 28-yarder that helped the Browns regain control after the Steelers closed their deficit to one point late in the third quarter. Mayfield's scramble set up an eventual 2-yard touchdown pass to Austin Hooper that gave the Browns a 17-9 lead.

And yet, it would not be the Browns without some drama, right? Matched against a Steelers squad that was resting a handful of regulars, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, they allowed backup Mason Rudolph to complete 22 of 39 passes for 315 yards and two scores with one interception. Rudolph was particularly effective down the stretch, leading Pittsburgh on touchdown drives of 75 and 65 yards in the fourth quarter, his 2-yard toss to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 1:23 to play closing the gap to two points. His pass to Chase Claypool on the two-point attempt was high and incomplete.

A Cleveland first down would end the game, but could the Browns get it? Nick Chubb, who rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, gained 8 yards on first down and none on second, setting the stage for Mayfield's clinching run.

"He wants the ball in his hands," Stefanski said of his starting quarterback.

The Browns have shown the type of resilience typical of good teams. Their building was shut down four times during the week because of COVID protocols and they had only two in-person practices. Three of their coaches could not attend the game, including Callahan, one of the game's top assistants. That Cleveland finished the regular season 11-5 while breaking in a first-year head coach and a first-year GM, and despite not being able to actually meet as a team until training camp because of the pandemic, only underscores this club's grit.

"I am really proud of that football team. I am proud of the finish," Stefanski said. "That is a team that battled some adversity through the week and through the game. Guys stepping up that did not know they were going to be playing, showing some resilience. I am really proud of those guys. I am really just happy for our fans. They deserve this. They have been waiting for this, and we are happy to deliver that to them."

Willi was appreciative -- and relieved.

"The last few minutes were typical Browns-like," he emailed. "Just close it out and don't do 'Browns' things. I was not able to sit in front of the TV! I yelled at the TV! But it looks like Cleveland has finally (got) a football team!"

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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