NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (11-4) at Cleveland (4-11)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - If you would have told the Pittsburgh Steelers before the season that they would finish with 12 wins, they probably would have planned on watching the first round of the AFC playoffs at home.
However, the Steelers face a real possibility of posting a 12-4 record for the third time in four seasons with a win this Sunday over the hosting Cleveland Browns, but still having to play football the following weekend.
Pittsburgh enters the regular season's final weekend tied with Baltimore for the lead in the AFC North. However, half of the Steelers' losses this year have come versus the Ravens, giving Baltimore the tiebreaker between the clubs.
That has the playoff-bound Steelers entering this game against the Browns as the fifth seed in the AFC, but they can still win the division and become the No. 2 overall seed with a win and a Ravens' loss at Cincinnati this week.
In fact, Pittsburgh can still clinch home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs with a win and losses by both the Ravens and the New England Patriots, who will take on the visiting Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
The big question for the Steelers will be if they opt to play quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this weekend or give him a second straight week of rest. He suffered a high ankle sprain in a win over the Browns on Dec. 8, but played 11 days later in a loss to San Francisco.
Roethlisberger, though, was held out of this past Saturday's 27-0 rout of the St. Louis Rams, with Charlie Batch getting the start and throwing for 208 yards with an interception. Pittsburgh leaned on its ground game versus the Rams, getting rushing touchdowns from three different players, but head coach Mike Tomlin won't hesitate using Batch again in this must-win game after the veteran improved to 5-2 as a Steelers' starter.
"Charlie's a veteran guy. We've won games with him in the past," said Tomlin. "If need be, we'll win games with Charlie in the future. We're comfortable with our depth at quarterback."
Roethlisberger, who did practice in full on Wednesday for the first time in three weeks, played the entire second half versus the Browns back in Week 14 and broke the game open with a late 79-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown that gave Pittsburgh a 14-3 win.
Cleveland also lost its starting quarterback in that game when Colt McCoy took a helmet-to-helmet hit from James Harrison that resulted in a one-game suspension for the Steelers linebacker. Though McCoy came back into the game, it was later revealed that he suffered a concussion, something the Browns did not test for prior to sending him back in.
Seneca Wallace got his second straight start in place of McCoy this past weekend, a 20-14 loss to the Ravens in which the Browns nearly rallied from 20 points down. Joshua Cribbs got the comeback try started with a career-long 84- yard punt return for a score late in the third quarter, and Wallace tight end Evan Moore for a six-yard touchdown midway through the fourth.
However, the Ravens were able to run out the clock when Cleveland rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor took a five-yard encroachment penalty on 4th-and-2 with two minutes left.
Also big was Wallace's decision not to spike the ball at the Ravens' three-yard line at the end of the first half. He instead handed off to running back Peyton Hillis, who was stuffed at the line as time expired.
"It was bad communication on my behalf," Wallace recalled of the play. "I was trying to get an easy one at the end, and [Browns head coach Pat Shurmur] was calling 'Clock, clock, clock. "It was a tough situation and I should have handled it better."
The loss was Cleveland's fifth in a row, its longest slide since a seven-game skid from Oct. 18-Dec. 6, 2009.
A victory in this game would give 4-11 Cleveland four wins at home for the first time since notching seven in 2007.
The Steelers lead the all-time regular season series with the Browns, which dates back to 1950, by a 61-56 count and have now won three straight and 15 of the 16 most recent games played between the teams following their Week 14 triumph. Pittsburgh, which will seeking its seventh season sweep of Cleveland in the last eight years, has also enjoyed significant success as the visitor in this set as of late, having emerged victorious in nine of its last 10 stops at Cleveland Browns Stadium. The Browns' lone positive result against the Steelers over that rough 16-game stretch did take place at home in 2009, when Cleveland pulled off a 13-6 upset while entering the contest with a 1-11 record. Pittsburgh scored a 41-9 rout of the Browns when the two faced one another in Ohio during last year's regular-season finale.
The longtime rivals have also squared off twice in the postseason, with the Steelers taking both contests. Pittsburgh picked up a 29-9 win at home in a 1994 AFC Divisional Playoff and outlasted the Browns in a 36-33 thriller at Heinz Field in a 2002 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Tomlin is 8-1 against the Browns during his tenure as a head coach, while Shurmur lost his only previous meeting with the Steelers and Tomlin in his present position with last month's setback.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Without Roethlisberger (3856 passing yards, 21 TD, 14 INT), the Steelers leaned on their 16th-ranked ground game (116.1 ypg) and totaled 169 yards on 28 carries. Starter Rashard Mendenhall (890 rushing yards, 9 TD) had 18 carries for 116 yards with a touchdown, while rookie John Clay scored on his first career carry. Isaac Redman (387 rushing yards, 2 TD) added a touchdown and 35 yards on eight attempts behind an offensive line that lost center Doug Legursky to a shoulder injury that will keep him out for this game. He was starting in place of Maurkice Pouncey, who sat out with an ankle injury and is questionable for Sunday's test. Trai Essex would likely start if Pouncey can't play. Wide receiver Hines Ward (41 receptions, 2 TD) caught all four of the passes thrown his way by Batch, leaving him five shy of becoming the eighth player in NFL history to reach 1,000 catches in his career. Still, he is a third option behind starter Mike Wallace (71 receptions, 8 TD), who had four catches for a game-high 82 yards, and Brown (63 receptions, 2 TD) in Pittsburgh's passing attack. Brown logged 77 all-purpose yards versus the Rams, including 34 on three catches, to set a club single-season record with 2,048. He also went over 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career.
The Browns come into this game ranked sixth in scoring defense (19.6 ppg) and tied for second versus the pass (184.0 ypg), and actually held the Steelers in check through the air in the first meeting before Brown's long touchdown that was made possible when star corner Joe Haden (61 tackles, 1 sack) slipped on the coverage. Cleveland held Baltimore under 300 yards of total offense last week, but like most teams struggled against star Ravens running back Ray Rice. Cleveland gets excellent pressure thanks to Taylor (57 tackles, 4 sacks) and fellow rookie lineman Jabaal Sheard (49 tackles, 7.5 sacks), though it was defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (74 tackles, 4 sacks) who got the team's lone sack versus the Ravens. Taylor is second among all NFL rookie tackles in sacks, while Sheard's five forced fumbles are tied for third-most in the league. Cornerback Sheldon Brown (46 tackles, 2 INT) had an interception a week ago and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (145 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) was one of three Browns with a team-leading seven tackles. He is second in the NFL in stops on the season and has bounced back nicely from injury this year. Linebacker Kaluka Maiava (31 tackles) also had seven stops versus Baltimore despite breaking his hand in the contest. Safety Mike Adams (58 tackles, 3 INT) leads the Browns in interceptions.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
After an frustrating and injury-filled season, Hillis (557 rushing yards, 3 TD) is showing signs of finishing strong. He ran for a season-high 112 yards versus a tough Baltimore defense and has totaled 211 yards on the ground the past two weeks. Still, Cleveland is 28th in rushing offense (97.3 YPG) and 30th in scoring (13.9 YPG). Wallace (390 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) threw for 147 yards on 19-of-33 passing with a touchdown throw and interception in a forgettable performance in place of McCoy (2733 passing yards, 14 TD, 11 INT), who was not medically cleared to play yet as of Wednesday morning. Moore (30 receptions, 4 TD) was Wallace's favorite target with five catches for 35 yards, while rookie wide receiver Greg Little (61 receptions, 2 TD) had four receptions for 40 yards and is Cleveland's leading receiver. He needs five more catches to tie Kevin Johnson for the most by a Browns rookie. Mohamed Massaquoi (29 receptions, 2 TD) and Cribbs (34 receptions, 4 TD) are also targets for Wallace, who is protected by an offensive line that is led by left tackle Joe Thomas. The mobile Wallace was sacked twice last weekend.
As much as the Browns struggle scoring, the Steelers' defense is just as stingy in allowing teams to post points. Pittsburgh's shutout of the Rams was its second of the season, and it has allowed fewer than 10 points to four of its past five opponents. Pittsburgh's top-ranked pass defense (172.2 ypg) held the Rams to just 68 net passing yards and the shutout lowered its season average in points allowed to 14.5, second-best in the NFL. Pittsburgh did give up 164 yards rushing in the game while playing without linebacker LaMarr Woodley (39 tackles, 9 sacks, 1 INT) for the fifth time in seven weeks due to a hamstring injury. He is questionable for this game and may miss out on a chance to beat Harrison (56 tackles, 9 sacks) as the first Steelers linebacker to notch four straight seasons of at least 10 sacks. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons (87 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) led the Steelers with 10 tackles against St. Louis and both safety Troy Polamalu (89 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and cornerback William Gay (57 tackles, 2 INT) ended with six. Timmons, Harrison and defensive lineman Ziggy Hood (30 tackles, 1.5 sacks) all came up with sacks, with Hood matching safety Ryan Clark (96 tackles, 1 INT) with five tackles.
KEYS TO THE GAME
This will mark Harrison's first game versus the Browns since his illegal hit to McCoy and though he has done time served, the Cleveland offense needs to keep its emotions in check and not try to get revenge on the oft-fined linebacker. Harrison, meanwhile, could be a little timid in this game as he tries to avoid another penalty.
Take away Roethlisberger's long touchdown pass to Brown in the first meeting and the hobbled Steelers would have finished with under 200 net passing yards. Cleveland's success in that area and Big Ben's ailment should give a lot of work to Pittsburgh's backfield again this Sunday.
Should the Steelers go run-heavy, rookies Sheard and Taylor will get a chance to wrap up their first seasons with big numbers. Teamed with Rubin, the Browns have one of the better defensive lines in the conference, and that unit can make a statement for the next season this weekend.
Even without Roethlisberger, a fired-up Steelers team should have all the talent they need to get past the lowly Browns. Pittsburgh will need to stay focused, though, as it plays the same time as Baltimore and scoreboard watching could become a habit all game. Pittsburgh has no one to blame but itself (and in theory, Baltimore) for not having control of its own destiny, but it should still be able to take care of business at its own end. After that, it's just waiting for the chips to fall.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 20, Browns 13
12/29 17:44:34 ET