What makes a rivalry – competition or geography? While the easy answer is “both,” the 128th meeting of the “Turnpike Rivalry” would indicate the answer is geography.
Because while Browns-Steelers games haven’t meant much in terms of standings since the revival of the Cleveland franchise in 1999, there are still the water cooler and schoolyard arguments in places like Youngstown, New Castle, Erie and Wheeling.
And that’s where this game holds special appeal. For instance, years ago motorists crossing into Ohio on I-76 were greeted by a large green sign that helpfully read: “Cleveland 84 miles.”
Placed underneath that message was a “Go Steelers” bumper sticker distributed by then-radio flagship WTAE. During the Browns’ modern hey-day of the late ‘80s, a Browns backers club advertised on Pittsburgh radio, and some fan even wrote “Go Browns” on Pittsburgh’s Smithfield Street Bridge.
This year’s meeting in Cleveland will mean more than recent “Blue Collar Bowl” games. Following a disappointing 20-17 loss at Baltimore last week, the Steelers (9-6) have to win to make the playoffs and hope Buffalo upsets the New York Jets. A victory for the Browns (3-12), meanwhile, would give their season worth. The common cliché is “It’s Cleveland’s Super Bowl,” and there is some truth to that.
After all, if you were a borderline player, wouldn’t you be more inspired to have a big game in your final opportunity to prove your talent? Furthermore, wouldn’t you want your team to have a poorer chance to draft a player that would take your job?
The problem is “being fired up” doesn’t really mean that much following kickoff. That’s when “runs faster” and “is a better player” becomes the deciding factor.
As for draft status, Cleveland could get the top pick in next year’s draft, but would need to lose to Pittsburgh and for Tennessee to upset Indianapolis. A Browns victory could conceivably have them wind up with the fifth pick, but most likely they will draft fourth in that circumstance. They are currently in position to receive the second overall pick.
Pittsburgh at Cleveland
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Steelers -11
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Austin Davis do?
Could Davis, starting in place of Johnny Manziel who is out with a concussion, be Cleveland’s quarterback of the future? Possibly, as he’s athletic (once drafted by the Boston Red Sox), coming into his prime, and showed some signs of promise last year with St. Louis as well as this season in a Week 12 game against Baltimore in which he put the Browns in position for a potential last-second victory before a field goal attempt was blocked and returned by the Ravens’ Will Hill for the winning score as the clock expired.
Then again, Davis showed little in his only start with the Browns this season, a 37-3 loss to Cincinnati. A big game and Davis is in the mix next year. A flop and his career in Cleveland could be over, as the remaining two years of his contract are not guaranteed.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, is coming off a lackluster game and missed Wednesday’s practice with the flu (which, in hindsight, might explain why he was lackluster against the Ravens if he was starting to fall ill).
2. Will the Browns have a rabbit up their sleeve?
Head coach Mike Pettine may be coaching his final game as Cleveland’s head coach. Such is the case when one has lost 17 of his last 20 games.
Therefore, it’s time for “you know, I’ve always wanted to run this play.” The Browns know they will likely have to do something unorthodox to win the game and it’s the perfect chance to show it off, if for no other reason than for Pettine and staff to make a statement of creativity for potential future employers.
3. Will Antwon Blake play?
All year long Steelers fans have wondered why cornerback Brandon Boykin has sat, be it for the first half or the entire game, in favor of Blake, who may go down as the Harvey Clayton of the Millennial Generation. But as it applies to this game, Blake may not play against Cleveland because of a back injury suffered last week against Baltimore.
So will Boykin, who had a career-high eight tackles and registered his second career sack last Sunday against the Ravens, get his first start since 2013? If so, will he provide a boost to the Steelers’ 30th-ranked pass defense?
In a different way than the aforementioned Davis, Boykin also could be playing for his job, one that might mean a starting position in the playoffs.
Consider while Blake has started, the Steelers have trailed in the first half at some point during their last five games before Boykin came in and relieved him.
The last time the Steelers didn’t trail in the first half? Their 30-9 victory against the Browns on Nov. 15.
So if the Steelers were to jump out to a lead similar to the 21-3 halftime advantage they enjoyed in Pittsburgh in Week 10, would they pull the starters to avoid injury for the playoffs, even though such a move could potentially invite a Cleveland comeback?
Pittsburgh has won five of the last six in the series against longtime divisional rival Cleveland. The Steelers also have been victorious in nine of 11 meetings this decade and 27 of the last 32 since 2000. And if you want to back even farther, Pittsburgh has been triumphant in 60 of 86 matchups since the two teams started playing at Three Rivers Stadium.
Does this really appear to be the game that goes against the trend?
Prediction: Steelers 29, 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.