The moment Cleveland fans have been waiting for is finally here. The Browns head to Pittsburgh to battle the Steelers in their first playoff game since 2002in the AFC Wildcard game on Sunday night. The Browns officially finished in third place in the tough AFC North after going 2-2 in their last four games.
The Steelers won the division with a 12-4 record, although they did not look nearly as dangerous as the season winded down and have lost four out of their last five clashes overall. Pittsburgh tallied a 38-7 home win over the Browns in week six, and the Browns countered with a 24-22 victory in the second meeting last week in a game that had Cleveland tabbed as 10.5 point favorites.
Browns Top Steelers to Conclude Regular Season, Plagued with Queston Marks
The Cleveland Browns enter the Wildcard with confidence after beating the Steelers 24-22 in the regular-season finale last weekend. The Steelers did rest key players however the win gives the Browns confidence after Pittsburgh clobbered them in the first meeting. Cleveland posted a 6-2 record over their last eight games of the regular season with the defeats coming against the Ravens and Jets on the road. The Browns have covered in just one of their last four games.
Baker Mayfield had a terrific season, accumulating over 3500 passing yards with a sharp 26:8 TD to INT ratio. The 25-year old QB registered a 2:2 TD to INT ratio in two games against the Steelers this season. Mayfield has connected on 62.8% of his passes.
The Browns running game is among the best in the NFL and will play a key role in this game. Nick Chubb has established himself as one of the top running backs in the league, finishing with 1067 yards on an average of 5.6 yards per attempt. Kareem Hunt is also a threat as the young RB was able to collect over 800 yards.
Watch for Jarvis Landry in this one. The 28-year old WR is Baker’s favorite target and he has made at least five receptions in five consecutive games. Landry eclipsed 100 yards once this season and has 840 receiving yards on the year, while Rashard Higgins is second with 600 yards. The Browns will run more than pass which is ideal considering the Steelers’ remarkable pass defense.
The Cleveland defense came through with several outstanding performances this season but also had their fair share of ugly games which included 38 points allowed to Pittsburgh early in the season. The Browns’ secondary, which ranks 22nd, will have a tough challenge. They should contain the Steelers on the ground with a rush defense that ranks 9th.
As far as injuries are concerned, DE Olivier Vernon will not play after sustaining an injury last week. Starting corner Denzel Ward is dealing with COVID protocol and could return for this game. Starting offensive lineman Joel Bitonio is unlikely to play due to COVID protocol. Safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. and linebacker Malcolm Smith are on the COVID list and are questionable.
Cleveland is scoring an average of 25.5 points, placing them 14th in the NFL. They are allowing an average of 26.2 points, landing them 21st overall.
Steelers Back in Playoffs for First Time Since 2017
The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the NFL playoffs for the first time in three years. It was a wild season in the Steel City. At one point it appeared a perfect season was a possibility after going 11-0 but then lost three straight and four out of their last five games of the season. Pittsburgh needed a big comeback to beat the Colts to clinch the AFC North two weeks ago before falling to Cleveland last week.
Ben Roethlisberger posted big numbers but was inconsistent down the final stretch. The 38-year old QB surpassed the 300 passing yard mark five times this season and accumulated 3803 passing yards accompanied by a 33:10 TD to INT ratio. Big Ben tallied 162 passing yards with one touchdown pass in the win against the Browns and was rested in last week’s victory.
The Steelers do not have a threatening running game. James Conner did crack 100 yards on three occasions this season and finished with over 700 yards on 4.3 yards per carry. Pittsburgh features a stacked receiving core propelled by three tremendous players. Juju Smith-Schuster receives most of the attention but it was Diontae Johnson leading the team with over 900 yards followed by rookie Chase Claypool with 873 and JuJu with 830 yards. Smith-Schuster made a combined eight catches against the Browns this season. The Steelers’ offense was very uninspiring over their last six games, scoring 22 or fewer points in five of those six clashes.
The Pittsburgh defense is solid. They rank 3rd against the pass and 11th against the run which will be challenged in a big way in this game. Unfortunately, #1 cornerback Joe Haden is not expected to play due to COVID protocol which is a big hit as the #1 corner was likely going to be covering Landry.