The game will be the Browns first playoff appearance since January 5, 2003, when they also faced the Steelers. Cleveland will not only be looking for its first playoff victory against the Steelers, but also its first playoff win since defeating the New England Patriots on January 1, 1995.
A win would also break another longstanding franchise mark as it would be Cleveland’s first road win in a playoff game since beating the Dallas Cowboys on December 28, 1969, at the Cotton Bowl. (The Browns are 3-14 all-time on the road in the playoffs for those scoring at home.)
While we all wait somewhat patiently for Sunday night’s game to kickoff, let’s take a look back at the last time the Browns returned from a road playoff game with a victory in hand. (As always, hat tip to Jonathan Knight’s The Browns Bible as an invaluable resource tool.)
Cleveland 38, Dallas 14 (December 28, 1969)
The Browns finished off the 1969 season with a 10-3-1 record that earned the Century Division crown and set up a playoff date with a familiar foe in the Dallas Cowboys.
The teams had met in the divisional round of the playoffs in 1967, a Dallas win, and 1968, a Cleveland victory, and the Browns had rolled over the undefeated Cowboys earlier in the season, but with the playoff game at the Cotton Bowl, the Cowboys were looking for revenge.
The Browns were not willing to follow the script, however, and jumped out to a 17-0 lead at halftime behind quarterback Bill Nelsen’s 184 passing yards and a pair of two-yard rushing touchdowns from running back Bo Scott.
A Don Cockroft 29-yard field goal just before halftime, combined with a Cleveland defense that did not allow the Cowboys to cross midfield in the first half, sent the teams to the locker room with boos raining down on the Dallas players.
Cleveland did not let up in the second half as Scott’s second rushing touchdown of the day pushed the lead to 24-0. The Cowboys answered back with a scoring drive capped off by a two-yard touchdown run from quarterback Craig Morton, but linebacker Jim Houston intercepted Morton on the next Dallas offensive possession, returning the ball to the Dallas 19-yard line.
From there, running back Leroy Kelly finished off a short scoring drive with a one-yard rushing touchdown to push Cleveland’s lead to 31-7. The Browns third rushing touchdown of the day was as many as the Dallas defense had allowed all season.
The Cleveland defense, which had been maligned prior to the game by Dallas head coach Tom Landry, who dismissed it as being a “rubber-band” defense for its tendency to bend but not break, came up big by limiting the Cowboys offense to just 217 yards of total offense and forcing three turnovers.
It was the final turnover of the day that put a closing touch on the game when defensive back Walt Sumner intercepted a Morton pass and returned it 88 yards for a touchdown to put the Browns ahead by a score of 38-7.
That interception ended the day for Morton, who finished eight-of-24 for 92 yards and two interceptions, as Landry threw in the towel and replaced Morton with rookie quarterback Roger Staubach.
The Browns finished the day with 344 yards of total offense in a 38-14 win that sent them to the NFL Championship Game for the 11th time in 20 seasons. (Box score)
Following the game, Dallas wide receiver Bob Hayes was left wondering why the Cowboys were once again not able to get past the Browns, according to 2012 story at dallascowboys.com:
“We’re not choke-ups. There were 40 guys out there and every one of them played his heart out. … I don’t know what happened. Nobody does. It’s a mystery to all of us. We were ready.
“I looked over to our bench and I could see shoulders sag. Guys who had been eager and jumping to get into the game seemed to be saying, ‘Oh no, here we go again. You play hard to get to this game – the playoffs – and you either have it or you don’t have it. We didn’t have it. Why? It’s a mystery to me. We’ve been pointing to this particular game since last September. It’s one we knew we had to win. We have to win a big one to shake off this image. Some day we’re going to do it.”
Those comments from Hayes sound oddly familiar to what Browns players have been left saying over the years after facing the Steelers on the road, where Cleveland has only won five times since 1970.
Maybe Sunday’s playoff game is the day where they are finally “going to do it.”