NFL Preview - Cleveland (4-11) at Pittsburgh (7-8)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Cleveland Browns are in a familiar spot this holiday season: out of the NFL playoffs themselves and hoping to play the Grinch to another team's postseason hopes.
"I hate to sound malicious, but it'd help to put them where we are, out of the playoffs," said Browns safety T.J. Ward, referring to Sunday's Week 17 opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who'd need a defeat of Cleveland and the equivalent of a football miracle to have a game next week. "We don't want to see them succeed. It'll be good, anytime you can knock somebody out of the playoffs."
The problem for Ward: The Browns have traditionally provided exactly what the Steelers have wanted over the years -- particularly when the teams have met in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers have won nine consecutive home games against Cleveland, and all eight that have been started by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who's saved some of his best career play against the Browns.
He's 16-1 against them overall, having averaged just short of 10 yards (9.86) per attempt and posted a 109.1 passer rating. Meanwhile, Cleveland has started six QBs against him in the same stretch, a motley crew that's assembled a 6.02-yard average per throw and a 65.2 rating.
The next contestant comes in the form of veteran NFL'er Jason Campbell, who was removed from a Nov. 24 loss to Pittsburgh after suffering a concussion on a William Gay sack.
In that game, wide receiver Josh Gordon caught 14 balls for 237 yards -- including 71 yards from Campbell and 166 from starter-turned-backup Brandon Weeden.
That was the game that began the receiver's meteoric rise to the league's elite pass-catching targets, thanks to a run of 813 receiving yards in five games, which are 290 more than any other receiver during that timeframe.
Nearly 500 of those yards -- 479, to be exact -- have come after the catch.
Still, the Browns aren't exactly ebullient before the finale, especially considering last week's effort -- in which they blew a 10-0 lead late in the second quarter en route to a 24-13 loss to the New York Jets.
The defeat guaranteed a sixth consecutive finish with either 11 or 12 losses. Cleveland has lost double-digit games in 10 of the last seasons -- and 13 of the last 16. Its last consecutive years of single-digit losses came in 2001-02, when the team was 7-9 and 9-7 under long-since-departed head coach Butch Davis.
"We still have one more game, and I don't want to end my season like this," said defensive back Joe Haden, who's questionable with a hip injury. "I don't think anybody in this locker room would. The team that we have and the players that we have, I would never have expected it to be like this. It's got to change. This is not good enough."
Pittsburgh will take the field for the 4 p.m. start with a lot better sense of its playoff fate.
The Steelers not only need a defeat of the Browns to sneak into the postseason as a .500 sixth seed, but the continuation will also require 1 p.m. losses by both Miami (against the Jets) and Baltimore (against Cincinnati), along with a 4 p.m. by Kansas City (over San Diego).
The alignment of football planets would make Pittsburgh the second team to reach the playoffs after beginning a season with four straight losses, and the first to do so since the Chargers in 1992.
The Steelers were 5-8 after 13 games, but stayed alive with wins over the Bengals and Green Bay.
"Isn't that crazy?" defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We still are breathing and we're going to continue to fight. We've got one more that we've got to win to even have a shot and that will be our focus."
Contrary to franchise tradition, Pittsburgh is relevant this year thanks to offense, not defense. The Steelers have reached 30 points in consecutive weeks for the first time in six years and are fifth in scoring overall since Week 9 with a 29.3-point average.
That includes wins over Buffalo (23), Detroit (37), the Browns (27), Cincinnati (30) and the Packers (38), as well as losses to New England (31), the Ravens (20) and the Dolphins (28).
Roethlisberger has 14 touchdown passes to just two interceptions in his last six weeks, while being sacked just once per game. In the first nine games, he was dumped 35 times.
"This team just keeps fighting," rookie Le'Veon Bell said. "We faltered a bit at the beginning of the season, but guys are really fighting, trying to get into the playoffs."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Though his pass-catching teammate Gordon has gotten most of the publicity lately, tight end Jordan Cameron is quietly putting together one of the more productive aerial seasons in Browns history.
His seven touchdown catches are tied for second-most by a Cleveland tight end -- trailing only Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome -- and five catches on Sunday will allow he and Gordon to join 2007's Kellen Winslow (82) and Braylon Edwards (80) as the only Browns duo to reach 80 catches apiece in a single year. Cameron, though, is questionable with a concussion.
Rising Rookie Runner
First-year back Bell has returned from a spate of early injuries to provide precisely what the Steelers were looking for when they made him the 48th overall selection of last spring's NFL Draft out of Michigan State.
The 21-year-old enters Sunday ahead of all AFC rookies with 1,163 yards from scrimmage, which places him just 73 shy of the franchise's rookie record set by Hall of Famer Franco Harris in 1972. Bell ran for 80 yards and caught two balls for 18 more in Pittsburgh's November win over Cleveland.
Truth told, there's an excellent chance that the Steelers have squashed dreams win or lose. That shouldn't change the facts, though, which are that a hot team in front of a home crowd is facing a skidding opponent venturing into long unfriendly territory. Whether it means another game next week or not, this should be a happy finale in Steel City.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Steelers 28, Browns 17
12/27 09:23:28 ET
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