It seems the quarterbacking situation of the 127th meeting of "The Blue Collar Bowl" between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers may be backwards.
If the season ended today, the Steelers (5-4) would make the playoffs as a wild card. While overtaking the 8-0 Cincinnati Bengals to win the AFC North seems unlikely, with a favorable schedule for the rest of the season a playoff berth appears to be well within reach.
Therefore, why risk further injury and rush Ben Roethlisberger back into the lineup until he is fully healed after backup Landry Jones led the Steelers' game-winning drive last Sunday, especially against a last-place opponent?
The last-place opponent is, of course, the Browns (2-7). Time to see what 2014 first-round draft choice, Johnny Manziel, can do, right?
So naturally the Browns are doing everything they can to get veteran Josh McCown in the lineup despite his injured ribs and the Steelers, instead of just resting their meal ticket against a team they've beaten 26 of the last 30 times they've played, have Roethlisberger practicing with a sprained foot.
Cleveland at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Steelers - 4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Just who is going to play quarterback, anyway?
The fact Johnny Manziel, a former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft choice, is still second-string for a 2-7 team doesn't speak highly of his status as the future of the Browns. At press time, Josh McCown was listed as Questionable or 50-50 to play with injured ribs, but the question is why he would play even if he can. This is McCown's 13th season in the NFL, but only his third as a full-time starter.
Remember this is football, not baseball. In baseball a prospect might take his lumps while batting seventh to learn the game. In football there is practice, and if a prospect isn't showcasing himself well then it's unlikely he'll do well in a game.
Furthermore, McCown is the NFL's top-rated passer on third down.
It's likely Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine, a one-time assistant coach at Pitt under John Majors, feels his choice at quarterback is a decision between short term and suicide. If Manziel is uncomfortable throwing from the pocket in practice, how will he ever translate that to success in games?
Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger sat out Wednesday's practice before returning on a limited basis on Thursday, but one has to wonder if this is a decoy. Landry Jones is far more likely to start than McCown. The question is if Jones will perform like he did coming in relief of Michael Vick against Arizona and Roethlisberger last week against Oakland (12-for-18, 247 yards, two touchdown passes) or starting against Kansas City (16-for-29, 209 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, and a lost fumble).
2. How will DeAngelo Williams play? Will he play?
It appeared the Steelers were still in good shape when Le'Veon Bell went down with a season-ending injury. Veteran DeAngelo Williams, 32, rushed for 170 yards and has been so dominant if he continues on his current pace he will rush for more yards than any back his age has in history. And he's started three games.
An inflamed foot made Williams questionable at the start of the week, but he had a full practice on Thursday.
Furthermore, the Browns' defense is ranked 31st in the league against the run. If he's healthy and Jones starts at quarterback, Williams figures to continue and perhaps even increase the workload that saw him handle the ball nearly half of the time the Steelers had it in their 38-35 victory against Oakland. One figures he'll eat the Browns alive.
If Williams can't play, then fourth-year pro Jordan Todman, who has two carries this season, will start at running back.
One of the most memorable games in this rivalry occurred in 1980 when Browns quarterback Brian Sipe's Kardiac Kids came back in the fourth quarter against the Steelers in Cleveland with two touchdowns to win 27-26. Of course, Pittsburgh was playing without Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Jack Lambert.
3. Will the Browns change their game plan and how?
According to Steelers' color commentator Tunch Ilkin, the Browns have gone from a team that likes to run the ball outside to one that prefers to run the ball inside under new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Yet last year it was the Browns' outside running game that gave the Steelers fits in a 31-10 Cleveland victory, piling up 158 yards on the ground. So impressed were the Steelers that Ben Tate, who scored two touchdowns against them that day, was signed to play and started for Pittsburgh in the wild card game last season.
Somebody tell DeFilippo to run a sweep behind the tight end!
Defensively, the Browns have 15 sacks and five interceptions. The cliché is "the Browns need to do something different; to gamble." But in reality they cannot gamble, for they have nothing to lose at this point by attempting something new.
The Steelers are 13-1 lifetime against the Browns at Heinz Field. Once upon a time famed Cleveland sports talk show host Pete Franklin went to Pittsburgh to provide karma at old Three Rivers Stadium to snap the Browns' 16-game losing streak to the Steelers. Apparently it worked, as the Browns won 27-24.
Unfortunately for this Cleveland team and the Browns' fan base, Franklin died 11 years ago.
Prediction: Steelers 23, Browns 18
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.