Welcome to the post-season , Cleveland.
The Browns ended their string of non-playoff seasons on Sunday with a tighter-than-expected 24-22 victory over archrival Pittsburgh, which sat many of its starters. Cleveland returned to the NFL in 1999, made the playoffs in 2002, and then, zilch. Until now.
“It’s a moment I’ll never forget,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “But we’re not satisfied. We expected to be here.”
The NFL's two longest playoff droughts have been snapped with the advancements of Tampa Bay and Cleveland, both 11-5. The Buccaneers, who downed Atlanta 44-27, already were in and secured the fifth seed in the NFC, setting up a visit to the sub-.500 NFC East winner, Washington (7-9). Tampa Bay's last trip to the post-season was 2007.
The Jets now have the unenviable streak of going home early, beginning in 2011.
Cleveland gets a rematch next Sunday night with the Steelers, who will have back their regulars in Pittsburgh. Regardless, this is an unfamiliar feeling in the Dawg Pound.
“There are hundreds of thousands, not just here," defensive end Myles Garrett said of the Browns' fan support. "The 12,000 here, that was great, but there are so many Browns (fans) all over the world who were happy to see us get this win and finally get into the dance.”
Green Bay (13-3) is the top seed in the NFC after beating Chicago 35-16, but the Bears (8-8) got in as the lowest conference seed when the Rams (10-6) defeated Arizona 18-7. Los Angeles is No. 6 in the NFC field and travels to Seattle (12-4) for the late Saturday afternoon game, while the Bears go to New Orleans (12-4) for the second of three games next Sunday. The Cardinals (8-8) finished the season with two straight losses.
Baltimore (11-5) took the top wild-card seed in the AFC with its 38-3 romp at Cincinnati. The Ravens will play the early Sunday game at Tennessee (11-5), the winner of the AFC South thanks to a wild 41-38 victory at Houston in which Derrick Henry became the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.
The Titans knew they owned a playoff berth after Miami (10-6) lost at Buffalo 56-26. Indianapolis (11-5) then ended the Dolphins’ chances when it took care of Jacksonville, 28-14.
Indy, coached by Frank Reich, will kick off the playoffs Saturday at Buffalo in an intriguing matchup: In January 1992, Reich filled in as Buffalo's QB and led the Bills to the NFL’s biggest comeback victory, 41-38 in overtime against the Houston Oilers.
With the win, the Bills (13-3) clinched the AFC’s No. 2 playoff seed and matched a single-season record for victories, set in both 1990 and ’91, when they made the Super Bowl.
Dallas was done after a 23-19 defeat to the Giants (6-10), but when Washington knocked off Philadelphia on Sunday night, it advanced and will host the Buccaneers next Saturday night.
“I’ve been on teams where you let things just go downhill from there, when you start the season off the way that we did,” receiver Sterling Shepard said. “That’s the reason why I’m so proud of this team because we never had one guy hang their head and just throw in the towel.”
Not making the post-season for the first time since 2008 is New England (7-9). Of course, the main reason for that Patriots streak of success and six Super Bowls, Tom Brady, is now quarterbacking the Bucs — and in the playoffs.
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Barry Wilner, The Associated Press