Who wins Sunday night's rubber match between these AFC North rivals with the stakes even higher?
It's round three between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night to finish off the NFL's "Super Wild Card Weekend." The Browns (11-5) edged the Steelers 24-22 at home last week to end their 17-season playoff drought, albeit in a game that Pittsburgh didn't play all of its starters. The Steelers (12-4) won the first meeting handily, beating Cleveland 38-7 back in Week 6.
But the Browns did what they needed to last Sunday with Nick Chubb going for 108 rushing yards on 14 carries while Baker Mayfield put up 196 yards and a touchdown through the air. Despite the win, Cleveland's defense gave up nearly 400 yards of offense to the Steelers, who were led by backup quarterback Mason Rudolph. That will certainly be a concern for this game with Ben Roethlisberger back at the helm. The Browns also will be without defensive end Olivier Vernon, who ruptured his Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter last Sunday. Vernon was second on the team in sacks with nine.
Pittsburgh won the AFC North but has stumbled down the stretch with four losses in the last five games. Some schedule changes could be blamed for the slide and the Steelers won the game they needed to — coming from 17 points down in the third quarter to beat Indianapolis in Week 16 to clinch the division title — but there are plenty of questions about this team entering the playoffs.
These two teams have played each other just twice in the postseason. Pittsburgh has won both of those meetings, the most recent taking place in the Wild Card Round during the 2002-03 playoffs. The Steelers won 36-33 at home as Bill Cowher beat Butch Davis and the quarterbacks were Tommy Maddox for Pittsburgh (3 TD passes) and Kelly Holcomb (429 passing yards) for Cleveland. More recently, the Steelers are 3-2-1 against the Browns going back to a 21-21 tie to open the 2018 season.
AFC Wild Card: Cleveland at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 10 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: NBC/Telemundo, streamed on Peacock
Spread: Steelers -3.5
Three Things to Watch
Just because it's the postseason, doesn't mean there aren't intangibles to the matchup. One has to ask which team has the edge since they just faced each other last week. Is it the team that had to hold on for dear life to get in the playoffs or the team that rested key players and was able to save some of their playbook? The Steelers' key veterans got to recharge their batteries, especially quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who has been dealing with all sorts of ailments. Pittsburgh certainly hasn't been playing well lately but this is the playoffs and the opponent is a division rival so focus shouldn't be an issue. Health and depth could still be though given the injuries the Steelers have sustained, especially on defense.
For Cleveland, the Browns' health issues are different. They are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, one that will prevent head coach Kevin Stefanski from being on the sidelines Sunday night. Special teams coach Mike Priefer will serve as acting head coach while offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will call plays. This will be interesting to watch when you consider that Clemson was without its offensive coordinator for the College Football Playoff semifinal game against Ohio State, and the Tigers looked out of sync after using up their early scripted plays.
But the bigger concern for Cleveland is which players will miss this game. Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge have both already been ruled out after testing positive and as of early Friday afternoon, starting cornerback Denzel Ward and starting safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. were among the others on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The Browns' preparation for this game has been severely impacted by this outbreak and they certainly won't be at full strength come kickoff.
2. Rushing mismatch
Despite Baker Mayfield's recent success, Cleveland's offense is predicated on the run, which sets up the play-action passing game. Nick Chubb's 108-yard effort last week snapped a four-game streak for the Browns without a 100-yard rusher. Chubb didn't play in the first meeting in Week 6 because of injury and Kareem Hunt managed just 40 yards on the ground in his absence. Pittsburgh's defense has seen its performance slip as the season has progressed as injuries to starting linebackers Devin Bush and Bud Dupree have taken their toll. Cleveland has several banged-up offensive linemen, so it will be interesting to see the final injury report. The Steelers' pass rush has remained productive, finishing first in the league with 56 sacks, led by T.J. Watt's NFL-best 15. They got to Mayfield four times in each of the regular-season meetings.
3. Big Ben standing tall?
The Steelers are going to throw it a ton most likely since they don't trust their running game. We'll see how much the week off will help Ben Roethlisberger and what he'll look like on Sunday night. He threw for 341 yards in the Week 15 win over the Colts, silencing some of his critics. Last Sunday, Chase Claypool was Mason Rudolph's go-to guy, turning 11 targets into five receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown. With Olivier Vernon out, the only Browns pass rusher Pittsburgh has to account for is Myles Garrett (12 sacks). If the offensive line can give Roethlisberger time, he could have a big game, especially considering Cleveland's COVID-19 concerns in their secondary. Even at full strength, the Browns have been susceptible to the pass (247.6 ypg, 31 TDs).
You are going to see a lot of people picking the road team in this game, but I'm not going to be one of them. Yes, the Steelers are dragging into this game, but in the end, I trust their defense and Big Ben to get the victory. This doesn't mean I think a playoff run is going to happen, but I like their chances against a Browns defense that you can move the ball on. Don’t forget, they nearly lost to Mason Rudolph last week.
Prediction: Steelers 24, Browns 20
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.