Browns Winners and Losers of Week 17: Divisional trilogies, Baker Mayfield and 1-31 survivors – cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Browns held off the Steelers on Sunday, 24-22. But that’s just what the scoreboard said.

Here are the game’s real winners and losers:

WINNER: Trilogies

Browns-Steelers I was the kind of dud that goes straight to video.

Browns-Steelers II had a lot more intrigue but lacked star power (even though it’s already a cult classic in Cleveland).

The NFL isn’t ready to cancel this series yet, though, because the third episode is coming at you on Sunday night in the version of an AFC Wild Card game.

Browns-Steelers III: The Starters Strike Back!

Whose starters? Who knows?

But both teams will have numerous players return to the lineup for the playoffs after a week of rest or a week on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The game has already been scheduled for prime time.

The biggest reason behind that is surely the division rivalry. Not only will the Browns and Steelers play for the third time this season, this will be the third time they’ve met in the playoffs.

The first meeting was in the 1995, a 29-9 Browns loss. The second was in the 2002, a 36-33 Browns loss.

The Browns were 0-3 against the Steelers in both those seasons. And in 2002 the Browns lost all three meetings by three points. Talk about boring trilogies. It’s like they just redid the same script over and over.

The Browns have never won a playoff game against a division opponent.

Along with those losses to the Steelers, the Browns lost a 1988 Wild Card game to the Oilers. Similar to this season, the Browns had to play the Oilers in the final regular-season game (a win), then turn around a week later and face them in the playoffs (a loss).

Division foes have met in the playoffs 20 times since 2002, when the NFL realigned to an eight-division format. The Browns and Steelers were the first on the list with that 2002 playoff meeting.

They’ll be joined this year by the Rams and Seahawks, who will meet in the NFC.

The lower seeded team has won 10 of those 20 playoff games between division opponents, with a No. 6 seed beating a No. 3 seed in five of them.

This season the Browns are No. 6.

The Steelers are No. 3.

WINNER: Baker Mayfield

Should we start calling Baker Mayfield a dual threat quarterback?

Probably not.

But he had two of the game’s biggest plays by running with the ball, so that makes him some kind of threat.

The first play was his 28-yard scramble in the third quarter, going from the Steelers 44-yard line to the 16. He threw a touchdown pass to Austin Hooper three plays later.

The second play came with 1:10 left and the Browns facing third-and-2. Kevin Stefanski called a keeper, and Mayfield following Jack Conklin and Kareem Hunt around right end for three yards and a first down. That allowed Mayfield to kneel down on the next play and run out the remaining seconds of the game.

Mayfield had 44 rushing yards in the game, a career high. Overall, he scrambled for three first downs against the Steelers.

As a passer Mayfield finished 17-of 27 for 196 yards and a touchdown. That included 10-of-12 in the second half.

He finishes the regular season with the third-highest single-season passer rating (95.9) in Browns history, behind only Milt Plum (110.4, 1960) and Otto Graham (99.7, 1953).

LOSER: Third-and-long

The Steelers were 8-of-17 on third downs, including 5-of-10 in the first half.

Every conversion seemed to come on third-and-long.

Rudolph completed passes for first downs on third-and-8 (twice), third-and-9, third-and-10 and third-and-11. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson both had 41-yard receptions on third downs, and JuJu Smith-Schuster had a 26-yarder.

We’re not even counting Claypool’s 28-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-10.

That’s a lot of long conversions the Browns won’t want to repeat on Sunday.

WINNER: Jacob Phillips

It’s been fitful rookie season for Jacob Phillips. He has been inactive for six games and dealt with a knee injury. Pro Football Focus gives him the team’s lowest defensive grade through 15 games (34.4) and he had seven tackles in 102 snaps.

But with B.J. Goodson on the reserve/COVID-19 list this week, Phillips was pressed into starting duty for the first time since Week 1, when he had 12 total snaps.

Phillips had a team-high 10 tackles on Sunday, including a tackle for loss in the first quarter. But it was his blitz with Ronnie Harrison in the third quarter that was his biggest moment.

With Phillips bringing pressure up the middle and Harrison from the side, Mason Rudolph underthrew JuJu Smith-Schuster, allowing M.J. Stewart to intercept.

Every other Browns draft pick (outside of the injured Grant Delpit) has had his moment this season. Jedrick Wills Jr. starts. Jordan Elliott forced a big fumble against the Eagles and played a key role in slowing the Titans’ Derrick Hendry.

Harrison Bryant has three touchdowns. Nick Harris stepped in at right guard for two games. Donovan Peoples-Jones has made some crucial catches this season.

Now Phillips has his moment.

LOSER: Stefanski’s top fourth-and-7 play from the opponent’s 35-yard line

The Browns were 0-for-2 on fourth down against the Steelers. That tracks with what they’ve done all season, which is 8-for-22. That’s tied for 10th in attempts but 28th in conversion percentage (36.4) prior to Sunday’s game.

Stefanski mostly does what analytics consensus says he should do on fourth down. And, believe it or not, going for it on fourth-and-7 from your opponent’s 35-yard line isn’t totally frowned upon by the analytics crowd.

According to the New York Times 4th Down Bot, which offers data on such decisions, coaches should go for it on fourth-and-7 anywhere between their opponent’s 44- and 36-yard lines. So Stefanski was right on the cusp of that.

The wrench in all this was the time. Just 3:41 remained in the game. A 52-yard field goal puts the Browns up 27-16. But Cody Parkey has yet to attempt one from 50-plus this season. And there have been shaky moments of late from Parkey.

It really came down to a judgement call by Stefanski.

“We lost how many yards on the play previously? Would likely have kicked it had we not lost the yardage, but we had a play in that window that we had not used, and it was really the top play in that window,” Stefanski said. “Felt good about it so that is really all it was.”

The Browns led 24-16 at the time. A third-down sack had lost four yards. But the Browns kept their offense on the field and lined up in 11 personnel with KhaDarel Hodge, Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins split wide right. Mayfield’s pass to Higgins was low and incomplete.

The play didn’t work, but it should have. Higgins was open. A better throw keeps that drive alive.

Good call. Poor execution.

WINNER: Survivors of 1-31

Joel Bitonio was a second-round pick of the Browns in 2014. Charley Hughlett was signed to the practice squad a few months later, then kicked around to a couple other teams before returning in December.

Nobody on the Browns roster has been here longer.

But when it comes to living through the drama and frustration of the previous four seasons – including the 1-31 stretch of 2016 and 2017 – Bitonio and Hughlett have some company.

Other 1-31 survivors headed to the playoffs include Rashard Higgins, the last remaining member of the 14-player rookie class of 2016. There’s also 2017 first-rounders Myles Garrett and David Njoku, along with that year’s third-rounder, Larry Ogunjobi. And J.C. Tretter, who signed as a free agent that year.

Tretter was the only one of the bunch who had already experienced even a winning record, thanks to his three seasons in Green Bay.

And, of course, there are Browns fans. They, too, are survivors of 1-31 and 13 years since the last winning record and 18 years since the last playoff game and 26 years since the last 11-win season.

LOSER: Grudges

WINNER: Rebranding

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