We’ve all been looking for catharsis. A year of pent up frustration, waiting to be released so we can finally feel like things are getting normal again. While sports are just part of our lives, the collective anguish Cleveland Browns fans have been feeling for decades upon decades exploded in Pittsburgh in the best possible way.
This isn’t about hating on the Steelers, really it’s not. This is about the objective, exquisite joy of seeing the NFL’s most downtrodden team finally prevailing against their yearly foe, and not only winning a game, but making a statement. Cleveland has never handed Pittsburgh a loss like this, in fact, the Steelers have never suffered anything like they did on Sunday night, at least not in the modern era. You need to go back to 1968 to find the last time Pittsburgh gave up 35 points in a half, and even then it’s rarely happened in franchise history.
It’s beyond beautiful to see the Browns do it, especially after the week they’ve endured. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think Cleveland could do it. Not because they lacked the talent, but because it felt like circumstance had unfairly pointed its finger at the team and said “no.” Four of the team’s best players were lost to Covid protocols, four more coaches joined them — including head coach Kevin Stefanski. He was forced to watch alone, from his basement, while his team made history.
It just all felt like too much for the Browns to overcome. The lack of players, support, practice ahead of the biggest game of their lives. Another chapter in the grand tragedy which is the Browns franchise. And yet, they did the impossible. Sure, they were helped along by a Steelers team who have been lost for the better part of six weeks, but still they earned this. Cleveland earned this. It wasn’t given to them, in fact it was more or less taken away.
The guts and determination this team showed not to fold with so many cards stacked against them is completely different to the futility we’re used to seeing in the past from a team that often seemed completely comfortable losing. On this frigid night in Pittsburgh it was time to not use adversity as an excuse, but as fuel — and dammit, the Browns did it.
Obviously things look rough from here. Cleveland will travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs, which is the toughest game in the NFL. But at this point I have to feel like Browns fans are happy. Beating the Steelers gave them their catharsis, and this is something to build off. This just feels right.
Winner: Josh Allen
There was more to just playing well that makes Allen a winner this week. At this point he’s already a massive hero in Buffalo, and bringing the Bills back to the playoffs solidified that — but it was also a chance to show a national audience just how good he is.
To a lot of people Josh Allen is still the “reach” from the 2018 NFL Draft who experts said was destined to be a bust at the next level. However, since his up-and-down first season he’s been on fire. Yes, this was a mistake in player evaluation, but to be fair, Allen looks nothing like he did at Wyoming.
The maturation has been so pronounced that it hasn’t taken long for Allen to not just become a winner who can lead one of the best teams in the NFL, he’s making a case as one of the best quarterbacks in the league period. It’s got to feel good that more people were around to notice it.
Loser: Russell Wilson.
It’s not so much that Wilson played poorly, it’s how completely overwhelmed he was against the Rams on Saturday afternoon that tells the story here. The biggest tragedy in the NFL isn’t losing, players are used to it, it’s the gnawing feeling that you never got a chance to play your best — and make no mistake, Wilson was not able to be his best.
The Seahawks’ offensive line never stood a chance against the Rams from the first snap, the Los Angeles secondary completely mitigated the threats of Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. The result was an unfortunately familiar song and dace. It’s another disappointing end to a Seattle season that held so much promise.
It’s going to be a long offseason for Wilson and co, while the team tries to fill its remaining gaps and find a way to get better. At some point though this cycle of disappointment is going to need to end.
Winner: Taylor Heinicke.
The burgeoning mythos behind Taylor Heinicke might be one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while in the NFL. Firstly, yes, he looked way better than any depth quarterback should in the playoffs against the Buccaneers, but I’d swear, if you were watching social media on Saturday night you’d think he was the second coming.
In reality, it was a totally fine, passable game. Nothing more. He finished 26-of-44 for 306 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That’s fine, and certainly very impressive given the circumstances. But it’s not amazing.
I think Washington fans have become so numb to terrible quarterbacking the even a mediocre game is cause for surprise. It’s passer Stockholm Syndrome. But yes, Heinicke is still a huge winner after this weekend.
Here’s a guy who would have been fighting for a roster spot, probably not even having a team, then he plays decently on national TV and now there’s huge buzz. I think it’s a mistake to assume he’ll ever be a starting quarterback, but we’re witnessing the beginning of an incredible backup career that will last him a decade. Heinicke could easily become the next Ryan Fitzpatrick off this game, and make a life for himself because of it.
Loser: Derrick Henry.
Another case of this not being his fault, like Russell Wilson you could tell King Henry was incredibly frustrated that he couldn’t get much done against the Ravens.
Baltimore made its entire focus stopping the run, and it resulted in holding Henry to 40 yards on 18 carries. They took the biggest weapon Tennessee had, and made him a total non-issue in front of Titans fans at home.
It was a great, obvious strategy — but still a shock the normally excellent offensive line for Tennessee couldn’t get any push at all. It left the game on the table, and considering this came down to just one score, it’s entirely likely a big game from Henry would have been the difference.
The network’s first attempt at broadcasting the NFL Playoffs was a success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Sure, it was an event that wasn’t intended for everyone, and its simplistic approach to football was targeted to kids — but it was fun, and that’s what football is all about.
From a less serious tone in the booth, to virtual slime cannons in the end zone, the entire presentation was spot-on, and made for a really unique way to watch football. It was a nice change of pace from how serious things had been in the past, and made Bears vs. Saints the perfect palette cleanser of the weekend.
Loser: Mike Tomlin.
The Steelers’ disaster wasn’t really Tomlin’s fault, but he sure didn’t help. Down by 12 points, facing a 4th-and-1, Tomlin decided to punt from the Steelers 46 yard line, instead of going for it. On some level it made sense, considering the Browns were struggling on offense — but keeping the pressure up was critical to getting Pittsburgh back in the game, and he seemed allergic to making a tough decision.
---> CLE (35) @ PIT (23) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 11, 2021
PIT has 4th & 1 at the PIT 46
Recommendation (VERY STRONG): Go for it (+7.1 WP)
Actual play: (Punt formation) PENALTY on PIT, Delay of Game, 5 yards, enforced at PIT 46 - No pic.twitter.com/nSoFurKutk
It was an objectively terrible decision. On the next possession the Browns scored, putting the game out of reach.