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Cleveland Browns Fans Savor End To 18-Year Playoff Drought

Outside Dave's Market in Shaker Square, lifelong Browns fans Linda and Rhonda Walker show off their gear, including homemade necklaces featuring brown and orange beads and bones. [Annie Wu / ideastream]
Outside Dave's Market in Shaker Square, lifelong Cleveland Browns fans Linda and Rhonda Walker show off their Browns gear including homemade necklaces featuring brown and orange beads and bones. [Annie Wu / ideastream]

It’s a happy day for sports fans in Cleveland. With a 24-22 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, the Browns punched their ticket to the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Long-suffering fans now have at least a week to savor the moment.

“We finally made it back to the playoffs,” said Vanessa Clever, a lifelong Browns fan who’s thrilled after Sunday’s victory. “That’s No. 1 for us. We just want to go all the way.”

Not long ago, that sort of football optimism was hard to imagine in Cleveland. In 2017, the Browns finished two years of historic ineptitude by not winning even one game, compiling a woeful two-season record of 1-and-31.

After that season, lifelong fan Chris McNeil organized a mock-championship “celebration” –  a “perfect season” parade, complete with buses and cars converted into floats to circle the stadium marking the team’s season-long losing streak.

“You know, you get to your lowest point, it’s like anything else in life, sometimes before you can come back you really have to bottom out,” McNeil said.

But it was more than a two-season slump. For the last two decades, Browns victories have been hard to come by.

“You know it was just a deplorable, cockamamie, slip on a banana peel organization,” said former Plain Dealer sportswriter and columnist Bill Livingston.

He rattled off a list that every diehard Browns fan can recite: almost yearly firing of coaches and management, bad draft picks like quarterback Johnny Manziel, miscue after miscue. But that seems to have changed now.

Rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski is helping turn Baker Mayfield into franchise quarterback, and Stefanski himself posted more wins this season than any first-time head coach in the team’s history, surpassing even Paul Brown himself. An 11-5 season and a trip to the playoffs has Cleveland fans in a justifiable state of euphoria.

“I tell you what, it’s really indescribable,” McNeil said.

Outside Dave’s Market in Shaker Square, Linda Walker was draped in Browns gear from her shirt to her hat to her necklace of orange and brown beads and dog bones. There was much celebrating among her family of Browns fans Sunday night, she said.

“It’s a long time. We’ve been cheated. These guys work hard,” Walker said. “This is everything. This is awesome!”

This year the Browns will play hated Rust Belt rivals, the Steelers, again – one week after beating them to get into the playoffs in the first place.

Lifelong Browns fan Alex Wilcox said he has faith the Browns can win against the Steelers because this isn’t the same Browns team of years past.

“I think that teams used to play us like we was a practice team,” he said, “but now they respect us a little bit more.”

Veteran Steelers quarterback and Findlay, Ohio, native Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play Sunday, but is expected to start in next Sunday’s playoff game at Heinz Field. He’s been the Browns’ nightmare for years, amassing a 25-3-1 record against the Browns since 2004, and a perfect 15-0 record on the Steelers’ home turf.

But Roethlisberger doesn’t scare Annaliesa Henley. She’s been a Browns fan since she moved to Cleveland 40 years ago.

“He means nothing to us,” Henley said. “Just keep your confidence up, keep playing hard, and put your faith in God, and keep your eyes on the football! Keep your eyes on the football and on their quarterback so you can sack him as many times as you can.”

As of Monday, the Steelers are the 4-point favorites over the Browns for Sunday’s playoff game.

ideastream’s  Annie Wu contributed to this report.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.