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Monday Night Football: Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Prediction and Preview

Longtime rivals battle on MNF with Steelers clinging to playoff hopes

Longtime rivals battle on MNF with Steelers clinging to playoff hopes

Entering 2022, the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers are dealing with two very different three-ring circuses surrounding their quarterback. For the Steelers, a Week 17 Monday night game with playoff implications will likely be the final time their 18-year starter, Ben Roethlisberger, leads them into battle at Heinz Field.

"Looking at the bigger picture," Roethlisberger told reporters Thursday, "I would say that all signs are pointing to this could be it."

That reality also applies to the Steelers' (7-7-1) playoff chances. A loss officially eliminates them from the crowded postseason picture that gained some clarity on Sunday. The AFC North has already been claimed by Cincinnati but Pittsburgh still has a shot, albeit a slim one, of getting a wild-card berth at 9-7-1 if it beats Cleveland on Monday and then a banged-up Baltimore Ravens bunch in the finale.

The Browns were officially eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday. Their three-ring quarterback circus revolves around an ailing Baker Mayfield receiving death threats. His wife initially publicized them in an Instagram story, written warnings Mayfield claimed were "not anything new for us" when addressing them in front of reporters this week.

"We are just in a world today and society that there are a lot of keyboard warriors who make empty threats and things like that," Mayfield said. "Which it is quite honestly ignorant when they go after people who are not directly involved in football."

So with Cleveland's season basically over will the Browns even put up much of a fight on Monday night in the Steel City?

Monday Night Football: Cleveland (7-8) at Pittsburgh (7-7-1)

Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 3 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN
Spread: Browns -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Can the Steelers jump-start their offense?
There's a reason the 39-year-old Roethlisberger is on the verge of calling it quits, battling through shoulder and pectoral injuries for much of the season. The Steelers have scored 20 points or fewer in four of their last five games, producing an average of 212 net passing yards during that stretch. Big Ben bottomed out last week against the Chiefs, averaging just 4.54 yards per attempt and finishing with 159 passing yards overall. That’s the second-worst average for him in any game over the past 10 years.

The lack of offensive production has caused the Steelers to fall behind early, limiting the effectiveness of first-round pick Najee Harris. The rookie is on the verge of 1,000 yards but is only averaging 3.7 yards per carry. No one else on the team has rushed for more than 75 yards, a weakened offensive line offering Harris limited support. (They’re ranked just 27th in the NFL in time of possession).

Another rookie, tight end Pat Freiermuth, has been an offensive bright spot but missed the Chiefs game due to a concussion. He should be set to return Monday night and could provide another option beyond wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.

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2. Who's healthy and who's not?
Once again, the specter of COVID-19 hangs over this game as both teams are dealing with players sidelined due to positive tests. The Steelers' defense has been hard hit, with three starters currently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list: DL Chris Wormley, ILB Joe Schobert, and ILB Devin Bush. Nose tackle Isaiah Buggs and defensive back Arthur Maulet have both rejoined the team.

Schobert and Wormley are arguably the biggest losses. Schobert's 108 tackles rank second on the team while Wormley has six sacks, including one against the Browns in their 15-10 victory back in Week 8.

The Browns, meanwhile, are slowly recovering from a COVID-19 wave that took down their top two quarterbacks, leaving them inactive in a Week 15 loss against the Raiders. Since then, they've slowly been adding back starters, activating kicker Chase McLaughlin and center JC Tretter earlier this week. That leaves just three players from the active roster (also two from the practice squad), left on the Reserve/COVID-19 list prior to Monday's contest.

But the Browns are dealing with some key injuries as both starting safeties — John Johnson III (hamstring) and Ronnie Harrison Jr. (ankle) — will be out, as will cornerback Troy Hill (knee). Running back Kareem Hunt (ankle) and defensive tackle Malik Jackson (knee) are listed as questionable. Cleveland's roster is in much better shape than it was last week but it's not at full strength. The Browns will need contributions from everyone, especially on defense, if they want to pull off a road win in the midst of an emotional moment for the Steelers.

3. Which Baker Mayfield will show up?
In the past two weeks, all the focus and pressure has zeroed in on Mayfield. Suffering through a year of injuries and struggling to perform up to expectations, his four interceptions made the difference in a razor-thin 24-22 road loss to Green Bay on Christmas day. Six of the Browns' eight losses have been by less than seven points; Mayfield had the ball on the final drive in two of them only to throw a game-ending interception.

The last time the Browns QB passed for more than 300 yards? Oct. 10. Mayfield hasn't thrown for more than two touchdowns in any game this season and he's played most of the year with a torn labrum, fractured humerus bone, and right knee injuries that limit his mobility.

How does Mayfield plan to turn it around?

"This [season] has had a little more drama, should you say," he said to reporters this week. "It comes down to handling your business, trying to find ways to win any possible way, and doing that week in and week out. Right now, we are in a situation where it is very apparent that we have to win this game. That is our job right now, and we are focused on that."

Final Analysis

On paper, the Browns are better. But hasn't that been the case all season long, in too many games for one of the NFL's big disappointments? Roethlisberger's final home game feels like the type of emotional wave that's enough to tilt this one in the Steelers' favor.

What that means for Mayfield, head coach Kevin Stefanski and the rest of the Browns is anyone's guess. But with the playoffs no longer a possibility, it's a fair assumption to question how much energy and emotion they'll play with on Monday night.

Prediction: Steelers 24, Browns 13

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.