Cleveland are on the verge of ending their playoff drought, but the Steelers defence won't make it easy even if they are resting some starters, writes Mark Kirwan...
"If the defence can contain Chubb and Hunt there's a chance they could beat the Browns without the offence having to do all that much. "
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cleveland Browns
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The Cleveland Browns are on the brink of a first playoff appearance since 2002. They've enjoyed just one season with double-digit wins since 1994, and that was in 2007 when they missed the postseason as the Steelers won the AFC North.
The drought they've suffered has seen plenty of false dawns, as well as just the second 0-16 season in NFL history.
And that long stretch of failure and suffering could still extend to at least one more season should they lose on Sunday and other results go against them in a very challenging AFC playoff race.
As if the ominous appearance of their six-time Super Bowl-winning Division rival wasn't enough to worry their supporters, a shocking loss to the New York Jets last week will have really put the shivers up a fanbase familiar with painful losses and false dawns.
That loss dropped the Browns to 10-5 when they should've clinched their January football ticket. Now, a loss in Week 17 combined with a win for Indianapolis over the basement-dwelling Jaguars could see them outside the newly-expanded playoffs despite their 10 wins.
But there were some extraordinary circumstances surrounding that Jets loss. Cleveland lost a host of starters due to Covid for the game, including their top four fit receivers. QB Baker Mayfield was throwing passes to players last week he'd have barely shared a snap with in practice.
Not an ideal scenario, even if the Browns' most potent offensive weapon is their running combo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
They've combined for 1,763 rushing yards and 22 offensive touchdowns from the team's total of 45, ranking among the best rushing teams in the league.
Combined with their Myles Garrett-led defence they'll be hopeful of controlling this game and ending the Browns extended absence from the postseason, though continuing Covid issues for Denzel Ward and Malcolm Smith mean they will not be at full strength this week.
Is Cleveland's curse going to strike again?
The stakes aren't as high for the Steelers as they're assured a playoff spot, it's just a question of seeding.
This game could've mattered a lot more. A month ago the assumption was they'd be vying with the Chiefs for the AFC's number one seed in weeks 16 and 17.
But Washington, Buffalo and Cincinnati upset Mike Tomlin's team, calling into question their Super Bowl credentials despite an 11-0 start to the season as the offence froze in December.
Running back James Connor has been inconsistent and injured with his back-ups failing to impress, while Ben Roethlisberger has looked like the 38-year-old QB he is as he throws the ball too quickly to avoid hits and failing to connect with the talented young receivers around him.
They could've been coming in on four straight defeats but a second-half comeback last week against the erratic Colts rescued a 28-24 win that means the Steelers could finish second in the AFC and face the seventh seeds in next weekend's Wildcard round.
If they lose, the Bills are poised to overtake them, though the new 14-team playoff format has somewhat diluted the importance of finishing position given it has removed the second seed bye-week.
Coach Tomlin certainly sees it that way as he has decided it's not worth playing all his starters this week. Big Ben will sit out this game, giving Mason Rudolph a chance to reacquaint himself with Myles Garrett after last season's confrontation.
Will Myles Garrett get a personal foul on Mason Rudolph?? BetOnline.ag (@betonline_ag) December 31, 2020
Center Maurkice Pouncey will also be rested, and their defence will be without TJ Watt and Cameron Heyward, two huge players, according to reports.
Those decisions could have a big impact on whether the Browns break their playoff hoodoo.
The line-up moves by the Steelers mean that the betting line as swung from close to a pick'em way towards Cleveland by more than a touchdown as the Browns clearly want to win more than Pittsburgh. I think the market has gone too far.
While Big Ben has the experience and Mason Rudolph did not impress last season when stepping in for the veteran, Roethlisberger has regularly looked far from his best this season despite the Steelers strong record. It's reasonable to wonder how much of a step down the back-up is right now.
The defensive absences could be more important. Watt is a defensive player of the year candidate as he leads the league in sacks in 2020. Heyward is a big presence along the defensive line and this defence is already missing important players like Devin Bush and Bud Dupree for the season, though they still rank as the number one unit in the league by DVOA, which accounts for strength of schedule.
If the defence can contain Chubb and Hunt there's a chance they could beat the Browns without the offence having to do all that much. The return of Jarvis Landry and the rest of the Cleveland receivers gives Mayfield a chance, but this is the number one passing D in the league he's facing.
I have to take the Steelers getting 8.5 points at 10/11, especially after they got their act together last week versus the Colts.
On the total, 42.5 is a pretty low line, but so many trends point to under - 15 of the Steelers last 20 games on the road have gone under, and 11 of the last 16 meetings between these two teams have failed to hit the total target - so Under is the wiser selection at 10/11, especially with Cleveland best running the ball and the Steelers offence hit-n-miss recently.
For TD scorers, it's hard to look past Nick Chubb as a first scorer option. He's only started 11 games this season and has 11 rushing touchdowns. At 4/1, he's the clear play for first scorer.
There are plenty of potential scorers in the anytime market, but if we assume this is a tight, tense contest, I'd be inclined to look at the Steelers D to get to Baker Mayfield and they could come up with another score. 7/1 is decent price on it, and I'd suggest a small punt on them to score first might be worth it if Cleveland's playoff dream becomes a nightmare.
1pt on Pittsburgh +8.5 points on the Handicap market @ 10/11 on the Sportsbook
1pt on Under 42.5 points on the Total Points market @ 10/11 on the Sportsbook
1pt on Nick Chubb First TD Scorer @ 4/1 on the Sportsbook
.5pt on Pitt D & ST First TD Scorer @ 4/1 on the Sportsbook
1pt on Pitt D & ST Anytime TD Scorer @ 7/1 on the Sportsbook