Browns end longest NFL playoff drought, survive late Steelers rally

The Cleveland Browns are back in the playoffs, qualifying for the first time since 2002 on Sunday by surviving a late Pittsburgh rally for a 24-22 win over the Steelers, who rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and several other starters.

The Browns (11-5) nearly blew a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, but stopped Pittsburgh’s 2-point conversion attempt and then recovered an onside kick with 1:22 left to hold on.

A week of COVID-19 disruptions concluded in celebration as the Browns ended what had been the NFL’s longest post-season drought. Their reward: Another game against the AFC North champion Steelers, in Pittsburgh next weekend.

Nick Chubb had a touchdown run, Baker Mayfield threw a TD pass and the Browns hung on as Mason Rudolph brought back the Steelers (12-4), who had the luxury of sitting their best players after clinching the division last week.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin started Mason Rudolph in the regular-season finale. Big Ben will get another shot at the Browns next week.

Rudolph’s 2-yard TD pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 1:23 left pulled the Steelers within 24-22. But Rudolph badly overthrew rookie Chase Claypool on the 2-point attempt, and Browns tight end Stephen Carlson then fell on the ensuing kick under a pile of bodies.

Before the scoreboard clock in FirstEnergy Stadium ran off its final seconds, most of the 12,000 fans — there were some Terrible Towel wavers — cheered wildly and Browns players danced onto the field.

The win completes a grueling turnaround for the Browns and their passionate fan base, which endured nearly two decades of dysfunction since the team’s last playoff visit — 197 losses, 14 double-digit-loss seasons and seven coaches ago.

But in his first year, coach Kevin Stefanski has not only navigated the Browns through COVID-19 issues, he’s got them back in the Super Bowl tournament.

Stefanski and the Browns barely practiced this week because of COVID-19 positive tests and protocols and went into their most important game in years without six players, including top cornerback Denzel Ward, and three assistant coaches.

The Browns were clinging to a 10-9 lead in the third quarter when Rudolph, under extreme pressure, floated a pass across the field that was intercepted by reserve cornerback M.J. Stewart.

Cleveland capitalized on the turnover with Jarvis Landry taking an inside handoff and scoring on a 3-yard run to put the Browns up 24-9.

Chubb’s 47-yard touchdown run on Cleveland’s first series made it look like the Browns might be on their way to a comfortable win.

But nothing is ever easy for the Browns, and after their offence bogged down, the Steelers got two field goals by backup Matthew Wright to close within 10-6 at halftime.

Surging Bills defeat Dolphins

Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills placed an emphatic stamp on their breakout season with a 56-26 rout of Miami on Sunday in a game the Dolphins could have clinched a playoff berth with a win.

Miami’s post-season hopes now rest on whether the 1-14 Jacksonville Jaguars can upset the Indianapolis Colts later in the day. With a win or a tie, the Colts would clinch a playoff berth and eliminate Miami.

The Dolphins (10-6) didn’t get results they needed to clinch their third playoff berth in 18 years, after Cleveland beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore routed Cincinnati.

Allen threw three touchdown passes and Isaiah McKenzie scored three times, including returning a punt return 84 yards, in a game Buffalo blew the game open by scoring on four consecutive second-quarter possessions.

With the win, the Bills (13-3) clinched the AFC’s No. 2 playoff seed in completing a season in which they matched a single-season record for wins, set in both 1990 and ’91, and won their first East Division title in 25 years.

Allen finished 18 of 25 for 224 yards passing in playing just the first half before being replaced by Matt Barkley to start the third quarter. Allen upped his total to 4,544 yards passing, to eclipse the team’s single-season record of 4,359 set by Drew Bledsoe in 2002.

Buffalo’s 56 points were the second most in team history, and two shy of the record set in a 58-24 win over Miami on Sept. 18, 1966, when the two were members of the American Football League. The Bills also finished the season with 501 points, a franchise best in topping the record of 445 set in 1991.

Rookie Tua Tagovailoa finished 35 of 58 for 361 and three interceptions, the first of which Josh Norman returned 16 yards for a touchdown to put Buffalo up 35-13 midway through the third quarter.

The Dolphins’ rookie closed the season with a 6-3 record. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t travel with the team after testing positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.

After Myles Gaskin capped the Dolphins’ opening drive of the third quarter with a 1-yard run to cut Buffalo’s lead to 28-13, Miami’s next four drives ended with Tagovailoa throwing three interceptions — one more than his season total — and turning the ball over on downs.

The Dolphins’ usually stout defence allowed the fourth-most points in franchise history, including the playoffs.

Miami opened the scoring with Jason Sanders’ 49-yard field goal, which came after Byron Jones intercepted Allen’s pass at the Buffalo 41.

The Bills went ahead on Allen’s 7-yard TD pass to McKenzie with 12:09 remaining in the second quarter, sparking a stretch in which they scored three times in a span of 6:47. Allen then completed the first half with a perfectly placed 32-yard pass to John Brown, who returned after missing five games.

Rookie running back Antonio Williams scored two TDs rushing in his NFL debut, a day after being called up from Buffalo’s practice squad.

Barkley went 6 of 13 for 164 yards, including a 56-yard TD pass to Gabriel Davis, and an interception.

Ravens punch playoff ticket against Bengals

The Baltimore Ravens used a club-record 404 yards rushing Sunday to clinch a playoff spot, beating Cincinnati 38-3 as Lamar Jackson threw three touchdown passes and became the first NFL quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in two consecutive seasons.

The Ravens rolled up 525 total yards, and the 404 rushing yards were the most surrendered by a Bengals defence. Rookie J.K. Dobbins rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns, including a 72-yard scoring romp in the third quarter.

Baltimore won its fifth straight game and advanced to the post-season for a third consecutive season.

Jackson rushed for 97 yards and threw for 113 before taking a seat in the third quarter. He has run or passed for at least one touchdown in 36 straight starts, the longest active streak in the NFL.

The Ravens started 5-1 but slumped amid a COVID-19 outbreak and injuries to key players. They rebounded to win four straight and put themselves in a position to secure the post-season spot heading into the season finale against Cincinnati (4-11-1) which had won two straight.

Baltimore (11-5) scored on its first two drives, a 34-yard Justin Tucker field goal followed by a 43-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Miles Boykin. The Ravens extended the lead to 17-0 when Jackson capped a clock-eating 93-yard drive with an 18-yard TD pass to Marquise Brown.

Austin Seibert booted a 38-yard field goal to get the Bengals their only points of the afternoon.

Dobbins scored on a 4-yard burst in the third quarter, set up by rushes of 18, 6 and 20 yards by Jackson. Jackson threw another scoring pass to Brown before departing for a rest, and Dobbins broke for the long run before Baltimore backed off.

Brady leads Bucs past Falcons

Tom Brady threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns Sunday, helping the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinch the fifth seed in the NFC with a 44-27 regular season-ending win over the Atlanta Falcons.

The victory, which means the Bucs (11-5) will face the NFC East champion, Washington or the Giants, on the road in the club’s first post-season game in 13 years, may have come with a steep cost.

Star receiver Mike Evans was carted to the locker room with a left knee injury late in the first quarter and did not return.

Brady threw touchdown passes of 29 and 4 yards to Chris Godwin. The six-time Super Bowl champion also tossed scoring passes of 25 and 30 yards to Antonio Brown, finishing with a Tampa Bay single-season record 40 in his first season with the Bucs.

Brady also joined Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Dan Marino as the only players with multiple seasons of at least 40 TD passes. Rodgers has done it three times, the others twice.

Evans was injured one play after a 20-yard reception made him the first player in NFL history to begin a career with seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The 6-foot-5, 231-pound receiver was helped to his feet and tried to walk off with assistance from a trainer. Unable to put his weight on the knee, he finished the trip to the locker room on a cart and was later taken for a MRI.

Matt Ryan completed 29 of 44 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns for the Falcons (4-12), who finished a distressing season that claimed the jobs of former coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff after an 0-5 start.

Ryan scored on a 1-yard sneak and also threw scoring passes of 19 yards to Russell Gage and 1 yard to Hayden Hurst. The latter trimmed Atlanta’s deficit to 30-27 before Brady put the game away with two late drives.

Brown had his most productive day since joining the Bucs midway through the season with 11 catches for 138 yards. Godwin had five receptions for 133 yards, while Evans had three catches for 46 yards before leaving the game.





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