BEREA, Ohio — The Cleveland Browns vanquished one ignominious streak. To keep their season going, they’ll have to vanquish another.
On Sunday, Cleveland ended the NFL’s longest playoff drought, clinching a spot in the postseason for the first time in 17 campaigns with a victory over the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.
Up next is a rematch in a wild-card showdown Sunday night (8:15 ET, NBC) in Pittsburgh, where the Browns will attempt to end their 17-game skid, which is the third-longest road losing streak to a single opponent in NFL history, according to Elias Sports Bureau data.
This is where the Browns also dropped 16 in a row from 1970 to 1985 — bad enough to be the fifth-longest road losing streak to a single opponent ever, as well.
It’s also where Cleveland’s past two playoff runs came to an end.
“The challenge is playing a really well-coached team with a bunch of good players. That’s the challenge,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Monday. “I understand the statistics are out there, but we’re really not too concerned with the past.”
The past might be prologue, but Stefanski has kept the Browns focused on the immediate future — a major reason he should be on the shortlist for NFL Coach of the Year in his first season with Cleveland. These Browns have proved to be different, underscored by an 11-5 regular-season finish, Cleveland’s best record since rejoining the NFL in 1999.
Still, Stefanski found out firsthand earlier this season why Heinz Field has been a bane for the Browns over the years.
The Browns revealed their mettle afterward, bouncing back to win five of their next six games. But off those past experiences in Pittsburgh, they know the buzz saw awaiting them.
“The Steelers are a great team, led by a good coach [Mike Tomlin]. They’re a physical team, and they find different ways to win and compete, no matter what,” Mayfield said. “All we wanted was a chance, and now we have it.”
The Browns, however, have had their chances in Pittsburgh before.
Last season, Cleveland had a prime opportunity to eradicate its Heinz Field demons. The Browns had just toppled Pittsburgh two weeks before in Cleveland, and the Steelers were without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had been lost for the season with an injury. Instead, undrafted rookie free agent Devlin “Duck” Hodges outdueled Mayfield, and Pittsburgh rallied for a 20-13 victory, sending the Browns into a late-season tailspin that resulted in a disappointing 6-10 finish.
“They just come ready to play in their town,” Browns running back Kareem Hunt said Monday. “Every team who is home, you try to make it tough for anybody to play there.”
The Steelers have certainly made it tough on Cleveland over the past five decades.
Before their divisional playoff game 26 years ago, Cleveland running back Earnest Byner stomped on a Terrible Towel during pregame. The Steelers responded by crushing Cleveland’s running game on the way to a convincing 29-9 victory.
The Browns made it back to the playoffs in 2002, and once again, they drew the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Behind backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb, Cleveland led 27-14 in the fourth quarter. But then Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox, the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year that season, engineered a dramatic rally on the field, tossing three touchdown passes in the final 19 minutes to propel Pittsburgh to a 36-33 win.
“The biggest thing for us is just focusing on what we have to do,” Cleveland defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi said Monday. “A lot of times, you can get caught up in everything else that’s going on. We have respect for them. It’s been kind of a one-sided battle for a long time.
“But this is a different team.”