CLEVELAND, Ohio — A remarkable 70 minutes of football unfolded Sunday afternoon, as the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers chased their own fates … with the Browns in the end relying on the Steelers to save them when they couldn’t save themselves.
Around 3:09 p.m. Sunday afternoon, both the Steelers and Browns trailed by 17 points in their games, a potential double whammy of defeat that would have dealt almost a death blow to the Browns’ playoff chances. So much had changed so quickly.
The week had been filled with the likely scenario of the Browns beating the New York Jets, and a debate about whether it would be better for Pittsburgh or the Indianapolis Colts to win their matchup had cropped up.
If the Colts beat Pittsburgh, the victorious Browns wouldn’t clinch a playoff spot, but they’d retain a chance to win the AFC North.
If the Steelers beat Indianapolis, the victorious Browns would see their division hopes vanish, but they’d clinch a wild card spot and their first playoff appearance since 2002.
But that depended on the Browns winning, and now down 20-3 early in the third quarter, they were desperate. They were desperate to mount a comeback against the worst team in the league, and they were desperate for the Steelers to revive themselves. Because if the Browns lost, but the Steelers won … there would be hope.
The following times may be off by a minute or two, but they offer at least a rough outline of a team trying to make its first postseason in 18 years.
3:09: The Steelers trail Indianapolis 24-7. The Browns trail the Jets 20-3.
3:10: The Steelers score on a 39-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson to cut the Colts lead to 24-14.
3:15: Nick Chubb scores on a 1-yard touchdown run to cut the Jets lead to 20-10.
3:25: Ben Roethlisberger hits Eric Ebron for a 5-yard touchdown to pull the Steelers within 24-21.
3:36: Kareem Hunt’s 4-yard touchdown run cuts the Jets lead, but Cody Parkey misses the extra point as the Jets remain ahead 20-16. But in about 26 minutes, the Browns and Steelers have gone from trailing by 17 to trailing by 3 and 4.
3:45: Pittsburgh goes ahead 28-24 on a 25-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 7:38 today, as the Jets punt the ball back to the Browns with 7:36 to play. The Browns have the ball with a chance to take the lead.
4:01: After the teams trade punts, Baker Mayfield fumbles with 3:24 to play as he’s sacked from behind.
4:02: The two-minute warning hits in Pittsburgh. The Colts have the ball at their 31-yard line, facing third and 5.
4:06: Pressured on third down by Myles Garrett, Jets QB Sam Darnold throws incomplete on third down.
4:06: On fourth and 5 for the Colts, Pittsburgh is called for pass interference. First down Indianapolis.
4:07: The Jets kick a field goal for a 23-17 lead.
4:08: Indy QB Philip Rivers completes a 21-yard pass to T.Y. Hilton on third and 6 for the Colts, as they reach Steelers territory.
4:08: The Jets’ kickoff with 2:52 to play goes out of bounds, giving the Browns great field position at the 40.
4:09: Kareem Hunt gains 24 yards on a screen.
4:11: From the Pittsburgh 33-yard line with 1:14 to play, Rivers throws incomplete on 4th and 8. Indianapolis turns it over on downs.
4:12: Pittsburgh wins. The Browns are in the playoffs with their own win.
4:14: Mayfield completes a 9-yard pass to Austin Hooper on third and 10, down to the Jets’ 16-yard line.
4:16: Mayfield takes the snap with 1:25 to play, and fumbles on a quarterback sneak. He pounds the turf in frustration.
4:19: The Browns lose. But thanks to the Steelers they are alive.
What began as a debate over whether the Browns wanted the Steelers to win ended with no doubt. On a three-game losing streak, looking old and done, Pittsburgh rallied for 21 straight points and saved the Browns’ season.
If Indianapolis had won, the Browns would have needed to beat the Steelers next week and get help. Instead, the Steelers winning made it possible for the Browns to be OK by winning.
They say the enemy of your enemy is your friend. This time, the Browns’ enemy was their friend.
Now next week, the Browns just have to beat their enemy.
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