The Cleveland Browns on Sunday ended their NFL playoff drought in spectacular style, exploding for 28 first-quarter points in a stunning 48-37 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Browns, in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, shook off a spate of COVID-19 absences to notch their first post-season win since the 1994 campaign, and send Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers home.
They booked a meeting with reigning Super Bowl champions the Kansas City Chiefs, while the Baltimore Ravens set up a showdown with the Buffalo Bills with a 20-13 come-from-behind victory over the Tennessee Titans in Sunday’s other American Football Conference clash.
Photo: Charles LeClaire-USA Today
In the National Football Conference, the New Orleans Saints ground out a 21-9 victory over the Chicago Bears, keeping 41-year-old quarterback Drew Brees’ dream of a Super Bowl swansong alive.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, 25, was not even born the last time Cleveland won a playoff game, but despite the pandemic-related disruption to his team’s preparations he kept the Browns on track.
“We believed,” Mayfield said of predictions the depleted Browns — playing without a string of players as well as head coach Kevin Stefanski — would crumble.
“The people on the outside don’t matter to us, and we believed the whole time,” he said.
Roethlisberger threw four interceptions, while Mayfield, making his playoff debut, connected on 21 of 34 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
Another young quarterback came through in Nashville, where Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson threw for one touchdown and produced a dazzling 48-yard solo score to propel the Ravens.
Jackson finished with 179 passing yards and 136 yards rushing.
It was the first post-season victory of Jackson’s career after two defeats and the first time the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player had helped his team overturn a double-digit deficit.
“It feels great,” Jackson said. “I’m happy we got it done.”
The win was especially sweet for the Ravens, who were stunned by the Titans last season after entering the playoffs as the top seed in the American Football Conference.
It looked as if history was set to repeat itself as the Titans surged to an early 10-0 lead thanks to an A.J. Brown touchdown and a Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
With the Titans defense stifling Jackson, the Ravens were limited to a 33-yard field goal from Justin Tucker as halftime approached.
A moment of magic from Jackson then transformed the game, the 24-year-old bursting through a gap in the defense and accelerating away for a touchdown.
“That’s one of the best runs I’ve ever seen,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s the best run I’ve ever seen by a quarterback. We needed points at that point. It got us back in the game.”
That solo effort made it 10-10 at halftime and Jackson then led the Ravens on a 10-play, 77-yard drive to open the third quarter that ended with J.K. Robbins blasting through a crowd of bodies for a touchdown.
Gostkowski cut the Ravens’ lead to four points with a 25-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, but Baltimore restored their seven-point cushion when Tucker nailed a 51-yard effort with 4:23 remaining to make it 20-13.
In New Orleans, it was Brees — playing what could be his final season in the NFL — who shepherded the Saints to a clash with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a two-touchdown 265-yard performance.
It will be the first playoff meeting between Brees and Brady.
The Saints made hard work of overcoming a Bears team who finished the regular season with an 8-8 record and they will likely need to raise their game against the Buccaneers.
Brees threw touchdowns to Michael Thomas in the first quarter and Latavius Murray in the third, before feeding running back Alvin Kamara for a three-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth.
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