CLEVELAND — With their backs against the wall, the Browns secured another ugly win to preserve their status as a long shot to make the playoffs.
It wasn’t pretty, but the Browns won’t whine about their 21-7 victory over the AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers on “Thursday Night Football” at FirstEnergy Stadium.
After all, the Browns (4-6) have won their past two games and defeated the Steelers (5-5) and the division-leading Baltimore Ravens (7-2) in the same season for the first time ever. The Browns triumphed against the Ravens, 40-25, on Sept. 29 in Baltimore.
The Browns were ahead by seven points when linebacker Joe Schobert intercepted a pass from quarterback Mason Rudolph on first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 9-yard line and returned 20 yards to the 4 with 6:22 left in the fourth quarter.
Then on third-and-goal from the 8, quarterback Baker Mayfield fired a pass to the back of the end zone, where undrafted rookie tight end Stephen Carlson made a circus catch over linebacker Mark Barron with 5:25 remaining, allowing the Browns to extend their lead to 21-7. It was Carlson’s first catch and his third NFL regular-season game. The Browns had just promoted him from their practice squad on Nov. 1.
On the ensuing series, backup safety Juston Burris intercepted another pass from Rudolph to ensure the Browns would snap their eight-game winless streak against the Steelers and beat Pittsburgh for the first time since Oct. 12, 2014, in Cleveland.
With eight seconds left to play, an ultra-violent brawl broke out. Browns defensive end Myles Garrett ripped off Rudolph’s helmet and swung it, hitting Rudolph in the head. Several Steelers players jumped on Garrett, and center Maurkice Pouncey punched and kicked Garrett while the latter was on the ground.
The officials ejected Garrett and Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who had a physical altercation with Steelers offensive tackle Matt Feiler during the sequence.
The Steelers entered Thursday with a four-game winning streak. They will meet the Browns again in 17 days — on Dec. 1 in Pittsburgh.
As long as the Browns take care of business Nov. 24 at home against the Miami Dolphins (2-7), they will still be relevant when they visit Heinz Field.
Since the NFL realigned divisions in 2002, no 3-7 team has made the playoffs. From 2002 to 2018, seven of 99 teams (7.1 percent) that went 4-6 reached the postseason. The Browns hope to become the eighth team on the list of exceptions.
The Browns had a turnover-free outing for their third consecutive game. Mayfield went without an interception for the third game in a row.
He completed 17 of 32 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns with a rating of 92.3. He also ran for a touchdown.
Running back Nick Chubb led the Browns with 92 yards on 27 carries (3.4 average).
Filling in for franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2, Rudolph went 23-of-44 passing for 221 yards and a touchdown with four interceptions.
Schobert had two interceptions, two more passes defensed and 10 tackles, including a sack. He also picked off a low pass from Rudolph with 9:44 left in the third quarter, giving the Browns the ball at the Pittsburgh 49. Instead of taking advantage of the takeaway, the offense went three-and-out.
Then the defense let the Steelers back into the game, committing three penalties on Pittsburgh’s five-play, 87-yard scoring drive. Rudolph capped the march with a 3-yard touchdown pass to running back Jaylen Samuels, and the Steelers cut their deficit to 14-7 with 5:39 left in the third quarter.
The penalties called on the Browns during the series were unnecessary roughness on safety Damarious Randall for 15 yards, illegal contact on Burris for 5 yards and pass interference on rookie cornerback Greedy Williams for 38 yards.
Randall was ejected with 8:05 left in the third quarter for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Diontae Johnson, whom the officials deemed a defenseless receiver on a deep incomplete pass. Randall hit Johnson in the earhole of his helmet. Johnson was diagnosed with a concussion after being shown on Fox’s telecast bleeding from an ear.
The Browns lost both of their starting safeties — Randall and Morgan Burnett, who suffered an Achilles injury late in the first half. As a result, they resorted to the backup tandem of Burris and rookie fourth-round draft pick Sheldrick Redwine, who had not played a defensive snap for the Browns until Thursday.
The Browns failed to answer on their next possession. The settled for a 50-yard field-goal try, and rookie Austin Seibert missed it wide right with no time left in the third quarter.
Fortunately for the Browns, the Steelers were plagued by problems on offense, too, and had a turnover on downs with 13:25 left in the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-2 from the Cleveland 33, Rudolph nearly threw an interception, but defensive end Chad Thomas couldn’t hang onto the ball.
Earlier, the Browns blasted the Steelers with a burst of intensity out of the gate and seized a 14-0 halftime lead.
After the Browns started the game with a three-and-out on defense, their offense came out firing on a five-play, 65-yard scoring drive.
Mayfield and running back Kareem Hunt connected for 20 yards on third-and-8 from the Cleveland 37. Then Mayfield threw a 42-yard pass to receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who beat cornerback Steven Nelson to make the contested catch.
Beckham’s reception was initially ruled a touchdown, but a replay review revealed he had been tackled on the doorstep of the end zone.
The Browns overcame their goal-line nightmares from Sunday’s 19-16 win over the Buffalo Bills when Mayfield rushed for a 1-yard touchdown with a QB sneak on first down. Seibert’s extra point gave the Browns a 7-0 lead with 11:07 left in the first quarter.
The Steelers threatened to counter immediately, but they failed to make the Browns pay for cornerback Denzel Ward’s 33-yard pass interference penalty on wide receiver James Washington. Four plays after the foul on third-and-13 from the Pittsburgh 34 gave the Steelers a first down, Chris Boswell missed a 44-yard field goal wide left with 7:47 left in the opening quarter.
The Browns registered another defensive stop when safety Burnett, who played for the Steelers last season, broke up a deep third-down pass from Rudolph to wide receiver Johnny Holton near the Cleveland 41 with 14:04 left in the second quarter.
After taking over at their 23 following the ensuing punt, the Browns produced a seven-play, 77-yard touchdown march.
On third-and-goal from the 7, Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, who played for the Browns from 2010-16, gave his former team a fresh set of downs by committing a pass interference penalty in the end zone against receiver KhaDarel Hodge, who had a 41-yard reception earlier during the series.
On first-and-goal, Mayfield completed a 1-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jarvis Landry, whom the Steelers left wide open as he ran a crossing route. Seibert’s extra point gave the Browns a 14-0 advantage with 9:55 remaining in the second quarter.
With three catches in the first half, Landry passed DeAndre Hopkins of the Houston Texans for the most career receptions (529) in a player’s first six NFL seasons.
The Browns squandered an opportunity to extend their lead after Burnett intercepted a deep Rudolph pass on a flea-flicker that Ward deflected and returned it 43 yards to the Cleveland 30. Four plays later, Seibert missed a 45-yard field goal wide right with 2:31 left in the second quarter. The rookie fifth-round pick entered the game 16 of 16 on field goals this season.
In the midst of his best game of the season, Burnett’s non-contact Achilles injury occurred with 1:26 left before halftime. He had five tackles, including one for a loss, and two passes defensed, including the interception. Burnett signed with the Steelers in 2018 but grew unhappy with his role as a dime linebacker and asked the organization for his release. He joined the Browns in April after the Steelers cut him.
The Browns had no room to complain despite Burnett’s unfortunate setback. In the first half alone, the Steelers lost starting receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (concussion), starting running back James Conner (shoulder) and nickel cornerback Artie Burns (knee) to injuries.