Can the Steelers play spoiler to the Browns even with their backups in?
It'll be a nervous Sunday for the Cleveland Browns as they host the Pittsburgh Steelers with a playoff berth on the line. Simply put, a win or an Indy loss gets them into the postseason. However, there are a few more complicated scenarios, such as a Browns and Titans loss and Colts, Ravens, and Dolphins win or a Browns tie and loss from one of the other teams.
Standing in Cleveland's way is Mason Rudolph and a Pittsburgh team that will feature several backups. The Steelers technically could move from the AFC's No. 3 to No. 2 seed with a win if the Bills lose or tie (or a tie of their own if the Bills lose), but with no bye on the line, head coach Mike Tomlin determined his team's health to be more important than seeding.
These teams played back in Week 5 with the Steelers winning 38-7 at home in a game that saw James Conner run for over 100 yards while the defense held Baker Mayfield to just 119 passing yards. Of course, the bigger matchup of note was last year when Rudolph was under center and Myles Garrett hit him in the head with his helmet.
The Steelers are coming off a huge second-half effort in which they outscored the Colts 21-3 on their way to a 28-24 victory that allowed them to rest players this week. Big Ben threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns in the victory as the defense forced two turnovers in the victory. It halted a three-game losing streak that made the team and their fans worried about the future. JuJu Smith-Schuster was the leading receiver with nine receptions.
The Browns will just be happy to have wide receivers available for this game after playing the Jets without a single non-practice squad WR on the roster that. Nick Chubb managed just 28 yards rushing while Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant, and David Njoku combined for 14 receptions in the loss. The defense gave up 333 yards and couldn't force a turnover against a New York team that was seemingly trying to lose.
Pittsburgh at Cleveland
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 3 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Browns -10
Three Things to Watch
In my opinion, it was a rather easy decision to sit Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers have had a messed-up schedule and were due for some time off that they burned early on in the season. This is their sixth game in just over a month, and there's a chance if things line up properly that they could see this same Browns team in the Wild Card Round, so why not keep some things hidden?
Meanwhile, for Cleveland, where is their head at in a game they essentially need to win — and should win — considering who is in the lineup? This shouldn't have been an issue with a win over the lowly Jets. Instead, they had no wide receivers and played flat in the process. It's just the Browns' second home game since Nov. 29. Cleveland also is dealing with its own COVID-19 outbreak. The Browns are expected to get some players back they didn't have last week (the wide receivers), but there have been several new positives this week, so it's possible that they won't be at full strength this Sunday either.
2. Get the Browns' offense back on track
Mayfield threw the ball more than he had all season in December as he put it up 165 times. He had his best completion percentage at 65.5 percent, but the Browns have the most success when they favor their run game more than the passing attack. Chubb has not run for over 100 yards since the win over Jacksonville when he put up 144. Kareem Hunt has also struggled down the stretch on the ground, so it's important to get both those guys going entering January.
It's a bit of a mystery how well the Steelers will slow them down considering resting starters and injuries accumulated over the season. They rank second in pass defense and eighth in rush defense, and they're tied for the most takeaways in the NFL. The Browns have to be relieved to not face T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward this week.
3. Steelers' resistance
Yes, that question of who will be in the Steelers' lineup looms large. Tomlin already announced that What a time to be alive and Heyward won't play, but other stars may sit out completely or after a few series. How about Stephon Tuitt (10.0 sacks) and Minkah Fitzpatrick (team-leading 74 tackles, four interceptions)? Will Rudolph have the usual weapons to work with on offense like Conner, Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, and Diontae Johnson?
Some people may say that it's a bad move for the Steelers to not play their stars considering the recent losing skid, but I'm more of a rest vs. rust guy. Just remember last year that the Ravens beat the Steelers in a must-win situation last year with Robert Griffin III under center, so it's no guarantee the desperate team beats the resting team.
Cleveland will win this one, but it won't be easy. The Browns haven't done themselves a ton of favors with their play as of late. They struggled to put away the Jaguars on the road and, of course, are coming off a loss to the Jets. Good news, though, as the margin of victory doesn't matter (other than to the gamblers). Cleveland is playoff-bound on Sunday.
Prediction: Browns 24, Steelers 17
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.