Under ordinary circumstances, the Cleveland Browns playing the Pittsburgh Steelers would be one of the marquee games on the NFL schedule this weekend. The AFC North rivals are fighting tooth-and-nail in a crowded playoff race for the conference’s final wild-card slot.
But in the final seconds of a 21-7 Browns win two weeks ago, the Myles Garrett helmet punch seen 'round the world revved up this rivalry a whole other level. The fallout since then has been difficult to navigate for both sides. Garrett has been indefinitely suspended through the rest of the season (including any postseason games), costing the Browns one of their defensive leaders. The team has had to fight through weeks of bad press as the incident cemented impressions they're the league's most undisciplined franchise.
Meanwhile, the Steelers' Mason Rudolph finds himself benched for the rematch, throwing for an abysmal 85 yards and an interception last week before getting pulled against winless Cincinnati. Rudolph has appeared off his game since reports surfaced Garrett accused him of uttering a racial slur just prior to the fight, a claim Rudolph has vehemently denied.
While both teams fought through the controversy to win last week, bad blood has carried over into what's equivalent to a playoff elimination game. A Browns victory secures the tiebreaker over the Steelers and gets them to 6-6, sitting pretty in the wild card race with two games against the winless Bengals left on their schedule.
A Steelers victory, meanwhile, gets them to 7-5, guaranteed to keep leading the pack for the sixth and final spot based on tiebreakers. That potential cushion is needed with upcoming games against the Bills and Ravens on the docket.
Can the Steelers rally behind backup quarterback Devlin Hodges and get even against the Browns at home? Or will the Browns find a way to put the controversy behind them and produce a season sweep? Cleveland hasn't beaten Pittsburgh twice in the same season since restarting the franchise in 1999.
Cleveland at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Browns -2
Three Things To Watch
1. Can Devlin Hodges rally a dormant Steelers offense... without their best offensive players?
No matter how the Steelers feel post-Garrett, they're not getting anywhere against the Browns without scoring some points on offense. They've put up just 40 points as a team over the last three games, with seven of them coming courtesy Minkah Fitzpatrick's fumble return for a touchdown against the Rams. Outside of James Washington, just one other player (Jaylen Samuels) has a TD catch during a stretch where their quarterbacks have thrown five interceptions.
In the end, Hodges rallied the team against the winless Bengals with a 79-yard TD pass to Washington in the third quarter that shifted momentum. But let's take that play out of the equation. Hodges was 4-for-10 the rest of the game for 39 yards, sacked twice and looked uncomfortable in the pocket. It was two forced fumbles by Pittsburgh's defense in the fourth quarter that helped seal the game, not their quarterback driving the team down the field.
It's true Hodges has been more careful with the football, posting just one turnover in three games of NFL action this season. That was enough for head coach Mike Tomlin to take a chance after seeing Rudolph throw four interceptions against the Browns' defense two weeks ago.
"He has not killed us," Tomlin said of the quarterback switch, a biting criticism of a young player in Rudolph he still claims is part of the Steelers' long-term plan. Tomlin wouldn't even commit to Hodges as the starter beyond this game.
That leaves the offense on shaky ground considering two of their best players may not suit up. James Conner did return to practice this week but has indicated he'll sit a fourth time in five weeks, nursing a shoulder injury. Top receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has a knee injury that will leave him limited against the Browns – if he even plays at all.
It leaves Hodges with a hodgepodge of offensive pieces. Someone else besides Washington will have to step up for the Steelers to have a chance; the loss of Conner and Smith-Schuster means the defense can key in on their lone remaining weapon. One wild card that should help: rookie running back Benny Snell, who rushed for 98 yards last week against the Bengals. Snell didn't play in the first Browns game, along with Hodges, providing the Browns a different look on defense.
2. Minkah Fitzpatrick vs. Baker Mayfield
There's no doubt Mayfield has led the way for the Browns during their sudden turnaround. A maddeningly inconsistent performance has evened out during the three-game win streak: he's thrown seven touchdowns, just one interception and posted two single-game QB ratings over 100.
The offensive line has certainly helped Mayfield settle in, allowing just four sacks during that stretch. Against the Steelers, their focus on Fitzpatrick paid off, limiting the safety to just two assisted tackles in what was by far his worst performance of the year.
"We are going to go in there with a chip on our shoulder," Fitzpatrick said about the rematch. "They beat us the first game. We didn't play our best game. We are going to have a chip on our shoulder and be ready to play."
Chances are the Browns can't keep Fitzpatrick down two games in a row. He's scored twice in the last four weeks and is making a case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The question is whether the Browns can limit the damage and keep Mayfield rolling with his best offensive weapons starting to gel.
Last week couldn't have been better for the trio of Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr., and Nick Chubb, all of whom scored in a 41-24 Dolphins win. Chubb ran for more than 100 yards and has benefitted from Kareem Hunt's return from suspension to form a formidable 1-2 punch in the backfield. Beckham (six catches) had his most effective performance since a win vs. Seattle in mid-October; Landry piled up 148 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
It's a stiff challenge for the Steelers' defense. Can Fitzpatrick lead the charge?
3. Can the Browns calm down?
Even during the Browns' three-game win streak, they've remained one of the most penalized teams in the NFL. Through 11 games, they've drawn 121 total flags, tied with the Lions for the NFL lead. (The Lions, of course, have already played their 12th game). Cleveland's NFL-leading 892 penalty yards are more than the rushing yards accumulated by all but four running backs in the AFC; it’s giving their opponent an average of 81 extra yards per game. The totals would be even higher without 21 additional penalties that were declined, also most in the NFL.
That type of rule-breaking is what bails out ailing offenses like the Steelers in difficult circumstances. The Browns have been slightly less penalized on the road (an average of eight penalties vs. nine at home) but they can't afford mental errors in a rivalry game. It's the type of mistake that'll heat up the opposing crowd and give the Steelers confidence to pull the upset.
On paper, it feels like the Browns are in a position to earn the season sweep. Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, and the offense appear to be hitting their stride; the defense appeared respectable without Myles Garrett in last week's win against the Dolphins.
But the x-factor you can't put a price on is coaching. Mike Tomlin is currently putting together a dark-horse NFL Coach of the Year performance with the way he's cobbled together the roster after losing Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2. The Steelers have used the strength of their defense to keep them in games and home-field advantage should help them get those Terrible Towels flowing. Three of their five losses have been by four points or less to three Super Bowl contenders: the Seahawks, Ravens, and 49ers.
It won't be easy. But expect the Steelers to find a way behind their defensive front as the Browns once again find a way to beat themselves.
Prediction: Steelers 20, Browns 16
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.