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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (11-4) at Cleveland (5-10)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Pittsburgh Steelers will be playing for a beneficial break in the schedule -- and to avoid a repeat of recent history as well -- when the playoff-bound team visits the Cleveland Browns for a meaningful matchup to conclude the regular season.
The 2008 world champion Steelers will be making a return to the postseason following a one-year absence, but were they'll be seeded for the upcoming AFC Playoffs has yet to be determined. A victory over the struggling Browns this Sunday would not only give Pittsburgh the AFC North title, but a welcome bye week for the opening round for finishing second in the conference.
If the Steelers, who enter Week 17 tied with Baltimore for the AFC North's top spot but hold a tiebreaker advantage over their bitter rivals by virtue of a better record in division games, lose this weekend and the Ravens defeat Cincinnati on Sunday, then Baltimore would claim the second seed and force the Black and Gold to settle for the Wild Card. If both those events occur and the New York Jets get past Buffalo in their finale, Pittsburgh would be ranked last in the six-team AFC playoff field.
The Steelers can avert that much-tougher path as long as they're able to take care of business against the Browns, which doesn't appear to be a difficult task at first glance. Cleveland has stumbled badly down the stretch after a promising middle portion of the season, losing three straight times and having trouble mounting consistent production on the offensive side of the ball.
The Browns have mustered only 33 total points during their present skid, and a matchup with a fierce Pittsburgh defense that's been the toughest to score upon this season doesn't bode well for a sudden breakout. Cleveland generated a meager 280 total yards in a 20-10 home setback to Baltimore last Sunday, with rookie quarterback Colt McCoy tossing three interceptions and completing a lackluster 15-of-29 passes for 149 yards.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is coming off one of its most stifling defensive displays of the year in its last outing, limiting the inept Carolina Panthers to a paltry 119 yards and seven first downs in a 27-3 domination during Week 16.
While the odds appear to be heavily stacked in the Steelers' favor, the outcome of their latest trip to Cleveland Browns Stadium proves a win this week is hardly guaranteed. Pittsburgh came into a road test with a then 1-11 Browns' squad late last season as an overwhelming favorite, but were shocked by their longtime foes in a 13-6 loss that helped ruin any hopes of a Super Bowl repeat.
That disappointing result turned out to be crippling for Pittsburgh, which wound up being edged out by the Ravens and Jets for a Wild Card berth.
The Steelers were able to gain a measure of revenge with a 28-10 decision over the Browns in Pittsburgh back in November, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returning from a four-game suspension to begin the season to throw for 257 yards and three touchdowns.
The Steelers lead the all-time regular season series with the Browns, which dates back to 1950, by a 59-56 count and has won 13 of the past 14 games between the teams. Cleveland's only victory during that span was the aforementioned 13-6 triumph in a Thursday night game during Week 14 of last year, which sparked a season-ending four-game winning streak for the Browns, and Pittsburgh had prevailed in eight consecutive visits to Cleveland Browns Stadium prior to that defeat.
The clubs have also met twice in the postseason, with Pittsburgh winning both times. The Steelers picked up a 29-9 victory in a 1994 AFC Divisional Playoff and won a 36-33 thriller in a 2002 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is 6-1 against the Browns over his tenure as a head coach. The Browns' Eric Mangini is 2-2 against Tomlin and the Steelers, with one of the wins coming while he was at the helm of the Jets in 2007.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh's preference on offense is to grind it out and control the clock behind workhorse running back Rashard Mendenhall (1237 rushing yards, 11 TD, 22 receptions), but Roethlisberger (2920 passing yards, 15 TD, 5 INT) is more than capable of making opponents pay for attempting to focus solely on the ground game. That was the case last week, when the strong-armed quarterback throttled a Carolina secondary for 320 yards and a touchdown on a sharp 22- of-32 passing with the Panthers often stacking extra men near the line of scrimmage. It helps to have one of the league's premier deep threats in wide receiver Mike Wallace (57 receptions, 1152 yards, 9 TD), a second-year speedster who's averaging an outstanding 20.2 yards per catch for the year. All but one of his team-leading nine touchdown grabs have been from 29 yards out or more. Steady veteran Hines Ward (54 receptions, 4 TD) and tight end Heath Miller (38 receptions, 1 TD) serve as underneath targets for Roethlisberger, while rookie wideout Emmanuel Sanders (27 receptions, 2 TD) has become more involved in the game plan in recent weeks. Roethlisberger can be prone to taking sacks, and he was brought down eight times by the Browns in last year's upset loss.
Cleveland has the ability to apply constant pressure on Roethlisberger once again, as outside linebackers Marcus Bernard (26 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and Matt Roth (81 tackles, 3.5 sacks) are both quality pass rushers, but their talents would be wasted if the Browns continue their problems in trying to stop the run. The team has surrendered 161 yards or more on the ground in each of their last three losses, and come into Sunday's clash ranked 26th in the league in rushing defense (131.3 ypg). Cleveland has fared better against the pass, having come up with 19 interceptions for the season and holding Baltimore to 92 net yards through the air last week, though the Ravens ran the ball nearly two-thirds of the time. Cornerback and 2010 first-round pick Joe Haden (58 tackles, 6 INT, 17 PD) has been the primary playmaker in a backfield that fields a pair of rookies, with fellow youngster T.J. Ward (116 tackles, 2 INT, 9 PD) topping the club in tackles and playing a key role in run support as the starting free safety. The Browns are seventh in the NFL in scoring defense (19.4 ppg) and have yielded an impressive 15.5 points over the past four weeks.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
The Browns have been erratic on offense over the course of this season and miserable in that area as of late, having put up 280 total yards or less in all of their past four games. Teams have made it a priority to stop running back and focal point Peyton Hillis (1164 rushing yards, 60 receptions, 13 total TD) over the season's second half, with the Ravens keeping the powerful offseason pickup to 35 yards on 12 carries last week. With Hillis, who's expected to play this week despite missing practice time due to sore ribs, rendered a non-factor, McCoy (1367 passing yards, 5 TD, 6 INT) had the worst performance of his brief NFL career in the Baltimore game. The former University of Texas star has had his share of good moments during his seven- game tenure as Cleveland's regular signal-caller, however, including a career- high 281 passing yards against the Steelers in his pro debut back in Week 6. Despite McCoy's promise, the Browns still rank 30th in the NFL in passing yards (187.1 ypg) and have had difficulty discovering reliable receiving options to complement Hillis and tight end Benjamin Watson (61 receptions, 3 TD).
Hillis could come up with just 41 yards on 12 attempts in the Browns' loss at Heinz Field earlier in the year, a typical stat line for backs going up against the Steelers' formidable defense. Pittsburgh is permitting a scant 64.1 rushing yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry, both easily the best in the league, and stopped a strong Carolina ground attack dead in its tracks last week. Outside linebacker James Harrison (94 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 2 INT) and inside counterparts Lawrence Timmons (126 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and James Farrior (107 tackles, 6 sacks) are all elite stoppers and anchors of a unit that's allowed just 14.9 points per game thus far in 2010. The Steelers also excel at getting to the quarterback, with the devastating edge-rushing combo of Harrison and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (49 tackles, 9 sacks, 2 INT) heading up a group that's tied for the NFL lead with 44 sacks and took down McCoy six times in the teams' previous encounter. Harrison and dynamic strong safety Troy Polamalu (48 tackles, 6 INT, 10 PD) were both named to the AFC Pro Bowl team this week, but the latter is battling a sore ankle and may sit out a third straight game with the intention of getting healthy for the playoffs.
The significance of this game for the Steelers ensures that all their cornerstone players will remain relevant for fantasy leagues that are still ongoing, meaning weekly mainstays such as Mendenhall, Wallace and the Pittsburgh defense are safe to use. Roethlisberger is a solid choice as well at quarterback, while kicker Shaun Suisham is 12-for-13 in field goal attempts in his six games since joining the team in November. Avoid anyone on the Cleveland roster with the possible exception of Hillis, though keep in mind the bruising back will be coming in a bit banged up and faces an opponent that's usually a brick wall against the run.
The Browns were able to catch an overconfident Steelers bunch napping in a key game late last season, but it would be a shock if the same scenario unfolds. Pittsburgh is not only the superior team, but there's a whole lot on the line for the potential AFC North champions, so a letdown here seems to be a remote possibility. The same can be said of the chances of Cleveland ending its season with a victory for the embattled Mangini, as the Browns simply don't have the firepower to put much of a dent in a Steelers defense that's been close to impenetrable as of late.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 16, Browns 7
12/30 14:13:28 ET
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