December 9, 2023

QB Baker Mayfield celebrates the Cleveland Browns clinching their first playoff berth in 18 years., pub-2319592412860037, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0

While the Cleveland faithful rejoiced last Sunday at the sight of the Cleveland Browns snapping the longest active playoff drought (18 seasons!) on Sunday, many were not nearly as excited to hear that their postseason bout would be on the road against their final week opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Although the Browns defeated the 12-3 Steelers by a score of 24-22 to punch their ticket, this performance looks a lot less impressive when mentioning that nearly every important starter wearing black and gold was on the sidelines, including QB Ben Roethlisberger, OLB T.J. Watt and DT Cameron Heyward. To make matters worse, the Browns were hit with positive COVID-19 tests to G Joel Bitonio, WR KhaDarel Hodge and perhaps most importantly, Coach of the Year frontrunner and offensive play-caller Kevin Stefanski. A further investigation of this outbreak is ongoing and this has kept the Browns out of practice until Friday, with QB Baker Mayfield stating that he hadn’t thrown a football since last Sunday’s game. DE Myles Garrett’s edge-partner DE Olivier Vernon also tore his Achilles and is out for the rest of the season.

So in short: The Browns are ravaged by the pandemic and are up against a fully rested, division-winning team that has gotten the better of them for nearly the entirety of the last two decades.

Is there any sliver of hope the Browns can pull off the improbable victory?

Looking on the bright side, the Browns were able to return to their dominant rushing ways in the victory versus the Steelers. RB Nick Chubb picked up 108 yards on only 14 carries, including a 48-yard touchdown run in the first quarter to help get the offense moving for the rest of the game. Additionally, Baker Mayfield finally proved he can fill the seemingly eternal hole as the Browns signal-caller and looks poised to lead them into a playoff game. Since the start of November, he has tossed 11 touchdowns and only thrown one interception. Barring a nightmarish performance against the Jets, (albeit with practice squad receivers) Mayfield looked very solid down the stretch.

On the other side of the ball, the Browns defense will be bolstered by the return of star CB Denzel Ward, who will return from the COVID reserve list in time for Sunday’s clash. With the Steelers relying on short passes for the lion’s share of the offensive production, having a healthy secondary will be key for keeping Pittsburgh from scoring.

Despite starting 11-0, Pittsburgh finished the season at an underwhelming record of 1-4. In the last few weeks of the season, Pittsburgh struggled to generate nearly any production on the ground, finishing with no single player gaining more than 40 yards in four of these contests. This slump bodes well for the Browns; Pittsburgh has often relied on RB James Connor to push them past the Browns in recent years. The Steelers’ aerial attack has shown mixed results, but Roethlisberger still failed to throw for more than 200 yards in back-to-back losses against Buffalo and Cincinnati. But after a full week of rest for key starters combined, expect coach Tomlin to have the offense running well enough to win on Sunday.

It’s the Steelers’ defense, however, that causes the real problems for Cleveland. The Steelers have a top-rated defense by several metrics and stars like T.J. Watt (league-leading 15 sacks) and Cam Heyward are fully rested for the playoffs. Among playoff teams, the Steelers have created the most turnovers and the third-least points per game. With a battered offensive line, the Browns will very likely struggle to establish the running game with either Chubb or Hunt, which could lead to a very long Sunday night for Baker and company, even if they avoid turning the ball over.

Don’t expect the Browns to have numerous chances to win the game; Pittsburgh does a very good job of limiting errors, so the Browns will have to jump at any chance they can to put points on the board. Field goals (especially with Cody Parkey kicking) are not going to cut it and you can count on the Steelers to score a respectable number themselves.

The Browns are certainly up against it. They have a chance to punch the team that has bullied them for years in the mouth on Sunday, but certainly will not be easy and will take star performances from all of the Browns’ stars as well big step-up performances from the reserve offensive linemen. They need big plays on both sides of the ball as well as the ball to bounce favorably for them.

But if this past year has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen.

My Prediction: Steelers 31, Browns 20.

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