The easiest path for the Cleveland Browns (10-5) to reach the postseason is to win their week 17 matchup with the AFC North Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. They win and their in. Of course if they lose or tie against the Steelers, they can still reach the postseason, but will need a ton of help. I could break down each of those scenarios but at the end of the day the only one that the Browns can control is their own matchup and they have a lot to prove after an embarrassing loss to one win to the New York Jets last week. Remember this team hasn’t reached the postseason since 2002 and has always been seen as the little brother of the AFC North. 2020 is the perfect year to prove many people wrong and show the world they aren’t the same old Browns.
The last time these two teams faced off the Browns were blown out 38-7 at Heinz Field and QB Baker Mayfield was benched following a 119 yard, one touchdown and 2 interception performance. He was held to a passer rating of 54.9 and threw a pick-6 on his team’s third offensive play of the game. It only snowballed from there as Mayfield was sacked 4 times and absorbed eight more quarterback hits. The Steelers also shut down their rushing attack that was missing Nick Chubb holding them to 75 yards on 22 carries (3.4 yards per carry). Their defense on the other hand was shredded 297 yards and 4 touchdowns (3 on the ground). Lead back James Conner led the way with 20 rushes for 101 yards and a score to have his best day (yardage wise) of the entire season. To put it simply, the Steelers dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and it wasn’t close from the jump.
The unit that will once again determine who wins this matchup is Cleveland’s offense. To have any chance of making a postseason run and proving their critics wrong, they need to establish their rushing game to keep the Steelers vaunted pass rush out of their backfield. This task (in theory) should be made easier with TJ Watt and Cameron Heyward resting for the playoffs. The problem is that the Steelers know that to beat Cleveland you need to send pressure at Mayfield and will not shy away from doing so despite certain stars not being in the lineup. Cleveland has a lot to play for and the Steelers would love nothing more than to play spoiler. Expect a heavy dose of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to counter this attack both as runners and receivers.
Losing seven players, including your top four receivers, to the COVID-19/reserve list before any matchup is devastating but in 2020, when any team can win on any given week, it can haunt your team and boy did it ever. Cleveland only rushed for 45 yards on 18 carries and only reached the end zone twice (both on the ground). Mayfield was forced to throw the ball 54 times and averaged 5.4 yard per attempt. What’s worse is that he fumbled three times (2 turnovers) and the second one sealed the Jets’ upset. You simply can’t fumble on 4th and 1, when you’re 25 yards away from tying the game in the 4th quarter. That kind of turnover in the postseason will send you packing.
On December 29th, TE Harrison Bryant and LB Malcolm Smith tested positive for COVID-19 and the Browns closed their facility on Wednesday as a result of coach and practice squad players. This is a situation that continues to be monitored and this team can’t afford to lose anymore players to COVID-19. They have experienced first hand what can happen if their roster isn’t at full strength. Time will tell if anyone else will be placed on this list. The good news is that Mayfield should have all four of his top receivers back this week which should help boost a struggling offense. Whether these receivers will be able to get open against the Steelers secondary is still uncertain but will be a story to watch.
Defensively, the Browns will catch a break, as the Steelers chose to start backup QB Mason Rudolph under center. Considering the locked up the division last week and Ben Roethlisberger’s injury history, that’s a smart decision. That means that the Browns need to make Mason Rudolph beat them with his arm and pressure hum into mistakes. This will be his first start of the season and he doesn’t have the same chemistry with this receiving corps as Big Ben did. It is imperative that DE Myles Garrett makes his presence known all game and doesn’t allow Rudolph to get comfortable in the pocket. He looks to add to his 12 sacks and hopes to put his vicious fight with Rudolph last season in the rear view mirror.
Cleveland’s defensive backfield also needs to keep the Steelers receiving corps in check and not allow them to run deep to create big plays down the field. This offense has 4 receivers with 50+ catches, so they can’t focus on just one player. No matter who is at quarterback or how much this offense has struggled since starting 11-0, you can’t fall asleep on the Steelers passing attack. The job of stopping them becomes even more complicated with the losses of CB Denzel Ward and SS Karl Joseph to injuries. Rudolph will be testing that secondary all game and we shall see how they fare.
Right now, I trust the Steelers because they have less question marks on the offensive side of the ball and are the best in the league at providing pressure to opposing QB’s. They have a veteran coaching staff that has proven playoff experience and even though they will be resting several starters, don’t expect much in the way of change in game plans. The Steelers know how the Browns love attacking defenses, as these two teams face each other twice a year. Cleveland has taken many strides toward improving this year but I think their season ends Sunday.
Browns vs. Steelers Prediction
My prediction: Steelers win 31-20.
If my prediction is correct, only one of following scenarios need to occur for the Browns to enter the postseason dance:
- Colts lose to Jaguars
- Titans lose to Texans, Dolphins win/tie vs. Bills, Ravens win/tie vs. Bengals
If this game ends in a tie, Cleveland can clinch a playoff berth if one of the following happens:
- Colts lose or tie to Jacksonville Jaguars
- Miami Dolphins lose to Buffalo Bills
- Baltimore Ravens lose to Cincinnati Bengals
- Tennessee Titans lose to the Houston Texans
- Titans tie Texans, Dolphins win vs. Bills, Ravens win vs. Bengals
The game kicks off Sunday at 1 pm on CBS from FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland. Leave your predictions for this game and the Browns playoff chances in the comment section below or the CruelFan Facebook page.
By: Whitney Dowds CruelFan.com