Updated: Jan 10
With a win over the Steelers on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns will clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2002. Ironically, the last playoff game the Browns played in was against the Steelers at Heinz Field in the 2002 wild-card game, in which the Steelers came back from a 17-point deficit in the second half to win, 36-33. With the Steelers being either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs and only the first seed in the conference getting a bye week under the new playoff format, the Steelers game against the Browns is pretty meaningless on Pittsburgh's end. The Steelers rested key starters against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 in 2004 and ended up winning, 29-24. The Bills missed the playoffs because of the loss. We will have to see if history repeats itself on Sunday and Mason Rudolph and company pull off the upset.
- The Steelers are 77-59-1 all-time against the Browns and they are 22-4-1 against Cleveland under Mike Tomlin. Since 1999, the Steelers are 36-7-1 against the Browns.
- The Steelers are 8-0 under Tomlin in Week 17 games against the Browns. The Browns have fired four head coaches following Week 17 losses to the Steelers since 2007 -- Romeo Crennel (2008), Pat Shurmur (2012), Rod Chudskinski (2013) and Mike Pettine (2015). The Browns also fired Hue Jackson following a 33-18 loss to the Steelers in Week 8 in 2018. Kevin Stefanski has led the Browns to a 10-5 record in his first year as head coach and Cleveland will make the postseason if they can handle business against the Steelers' "junior varsity" team.
- The Steelers announced on Saturday that they've placed cornerback Joe Haden, tight end Eric Ebron and outside linebacker Cassius Marsh on the reserve/COVID-19 list. They also elevated kicker Matthew Wright, offensive tackle Anthony Coyle, tight end Kevin Rader and wide receiver Deon Cain to the 53-man roster from the practice squad.
- According to Dan Graziano of ESPN, Joe Haden tested positive for COVID-19 and will likely be out for the first-round playoff game along with tomorrow's game in Cleveland. Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton will have an expanded role with Haden out. Second-year cornerback Justin Layne should get reps as well in Haden's absence. Per Graziano, Ebron and Marsh are high-risk close contacts and should be available for the playoffs if they continue to test negative. Haden has played in just one playoff game in his career and that was the 2017 divisional round game loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
- The Steelers are most likely to play either the Browns or the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the playoffs. The Browns have the most scenarios to play the Steelers in the opening round. According to Missi Matthews of Steelers.com, Week 17 will feature three games (Steelers at Browns, Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears) that could possibly be played again in the first round of the playoffs. There have been 14 previous instances of teams meeting in the regular-season finale and the first week of the playoffs (most recently, the Packers against the Minnesota Vikings in 2012).
- On Monday, oddsmakers had the Steelers as 7-point underdogs against the Browns. With Rudolph starting at quarterback for the Steelers on Sunday, the line has moved to Cleveland currently being 9.5-point favorites, according to Oddsshark.com. The over/under for the game is 42 points.
According to CBS Sports, the Browns haven't been favorited by seven points or more against the Steelers since 1989. In Week 6 of the 1989 season, the Browns were a 10-point favorite over the Steelers in a game they would lose 17-7. The Browns blew out the Steelers 51-0 at Three Rivers Stadium in Week 1 that season.
The Browns are 3-7 against the spread in their last 10 games and the Steelers are 7-0 against the spread in their last seven games in the early afternoon, per Oddsshark.com. The Browns are 9-3 straight up in their last 12 games at home.
- The big storyline for this Week 17 Steelers-Browns game is Rudolph playing against Myles Garrett for the first time since last year's brawl in Cleveland. Garrett was asked by the Cleveland media on Friday if he was going to be hesitant to not hit Rudoph too hard.
"Get out of here with that," Garrett said in a Zoom call with the Cleveland media. "That won’t run through my mind at all. He can get hit just like everybody else. I’m not going to put a pillow underneath his head before I take him to the ground. But I’m not going to do anything extra.
"It’s just a game. It’s a Steelers game. It’s a divisional game. It’s an important game. But going against him, it changes nothing for me. And just like with any other player, any other quarterback, if he reached out his hand for me to help him up, I’m going to do it if I see him and he’s on the ground. It doesn’t change my mindset at all knowing it’s him back there. And I don’t think my presence will do anything different for him. We’re just going to go out there and play like we always have."
On Friday, Browns' head coach Kevin Stefanski named Garrett the captain for Sunday's game against the Steelers. Stefanski said the choice has nothing to do with the incident that took last year between Garrett and Mason Rudolph.
"I don't want that to be misconstrued," Stefanski said via Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. "It's a big game, so I'm sending the big guy out there, but it's in no way a call back to anything previously. So I just want to make sure that's clear."
According to Ulrich, Garrett wanted to be the team captain for the Browns-Cowboys game on Oct 4. because he's from Arlington, Texas, but Stefanski already named safety Andrew Sendejo the captain for the game. Stefanski told Garrett to pick another game to be the team captain, and he chose the Week 17 game against the Steelers.
According to Brooke Pryor of ESPN, Rudolph said on Friday that Garrett hasn't reached out to him in any capacity but says he has a lot of respect for him and the team.
"This game is too big to worry about anything external that happened years ago," Rudolph said.
Rudolph also said he’s willing to hear Garrett out if he would like to talk. Garrett said he would have no issue talking with Rudolph before the game to hash things out.
"I have no problem reaching out to him or talking to him before or after the game," Garrett said. "I would never say I am smack-talking during the game. I will just enjoy it. I will go out there and play the best I can. At the end of the day, it is not me versus him. It is me versus their line and the Steelers versus the Browns. If he wants to talk after the game, talk before the game or whatever happens, let it come naturally. I do not think anybody has any problems with each other."
Near the end of the Steelers-Browns game on Nov. 14, 2019, following a scuffle, Garrett ripped Rudolph's helmet off and hit him over the head with it.
Garrett was suspended for the rest of the season for his attack on Rudolph and would almost a week later claim that he was called a racial slur by Rudolph, which caused him to act the way he did. The NFL investigated Garrett's allegation against Rudolph and they found no evidence to his claim. Rudolph vehemently denied the allegation. It was an ugly scene on the shores of Lake Erie on that Thursday night in November, and it affected Rudolph not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.
Rudolph wants to redeem himself from last year's brawl in Cleveland, which in the game itself, he did not perform well, throwing four interceptions.
"There are a couple of ways you can go about it," Roethlisberger said on how Rudolph can deal with this game. "You can put it behind you and treat it like a typical quarterback that has to have a short memory. You just go out there and whatever happened last year, there is going to be a lot of hoopla about it, just put it out of your mind and go focus on this year, this game, this team.
"Or you can go take it as motivation that you want to go out and put it on them and win this football game. It's really each man has to decide how he wants to approach it. I know from talking to Mason and knowing Mason he wants to go out and win this football game. He is going to do everything he can for this team. This is an awesome opportunity for him to get out and show what he can do."
Rudolph will make his ninth career start on Sunday against the Browns. As a starter, Rudolph is 5-3 and had a 13-9 touchdown-interception ratio last year. Rudolph completed 62.2 percent of his passes and had a quarterback rating of 82.0 in 2019. The third-year quarterback out of Oklahoma State will look to capitalize on his only starting opportunity this year.
"I think I'm just motivated that I have this opportunity," Rudolph said on Friday via Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com. "All the guys that maybe have an increased role this week, Coach (Mike) Tomlin has talked about engineering victory. When you don't have your leader on offense, being Ben (Roethlisberger), our Hall of Fame quarterback, as well as some other players it's important, we know we have to bring the energy as a team. It's very motivating in and of itself, 'Hey, I have a chance to play this week,' as well as some other guys."
It's tough to judge a quarterback off just one game, but Rudolph really needs to make a strong impression if he's going to have any type of future in Pittsburgh as the heir apparent to Roethlisberger, whenever that time comes. Many don't believe Rudolph is the long-term answer to replace Roethlisberger, but he can at the very least, give fans hope if he puts on a good performance on Sunday in Cleveland.
- On Thursday, Cleveland activated wide receiver Rashard Higgins, wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, wide receiver Jarvis Landry, wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and linebacker Jacob Phillips from the reserve/COVID-19 list. The Browns were without all four of their top wide receivers in their 23-16 loss to the New York Jets last week. The Browns rushed for 45 yards on 18 carries (2.5 average) and Mayfield completed just 52.8 percent of his passes in the loss to the Jets. Not having their top four wide receivers obviously had a big effect on the Browns, as the Jets keyed on their running game and brought a lot of blitzes knowing that they were depleted at the receiver's position.
- The Browns rely heavily on their rushing attack, which ranks fourth in the league, averaging 145.5 yards per game. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are a dangerous duo in the backfield, with both backs rushing over 800 yards this year. Chubb leads the team in rushing with 959 yards on 176 carries (5.4 average) and 11 touchdowns. Hunt has rushed for 804 yards on 188 carries (4.3 carries) and six touchdowns. Hunt is also used as a weapon in the passing game with 37 receptions for 300 yards and five touchdowns. When the Browns have defenses on their heels and are successfully running the ball, they like to run play-action and bootlegs with Mayfield.
- On the season, Mayfield is completing 62.7 of his passes and has a 25-8 touchdown-interception ratio. Mayfield has been really hot and cold this year, it's either he plays really great or really poorly. There's no in-between. Mayfield's 54.9 quarterback rating against the Steelers in Week 6 is his lowest of the season. Mayfield completed 10 of 18 passes (55.6%) for 119 yards, one touchdown and threw two interceptions in a 38-7 loss to Pittsburgh. One of Mayfield's interceptions in the game was returned 33 yards for a touchdown by Minkah Fitzpatrick in the first quarter. Mayfield was also sacked four times and left the game at the end of the third quarter due to a rib injury that he was playing through. Mayfield has a 41.9 passer rating against pressure this season, which ranks last among quarterbacks to start all of their team's games. The Steelers pressure the quarterback on an NFL-leading 38.1% of drop backs and lead the league in sacks with 52.
- The Browns' offensive line has allowed just 22 sacks this year, which is the fifth-fewest in the league. Right guard Wyatt Teller has been really impressive this year and they've had solid play from both tackles Jedrick Wills Jr. and Jack Conklin. Teller is dealing with an ankle injury and is questionable to play on Sunday. Teller and Chubb both missed the first meeting against the Steelers in Week 6 due to injury. Teller is the Browns best run blocker, so it would be huge for Cleveland if he can go on Sunday.
- On defense, the Browns are pretty average across the board. They rank 17th in yards allowed per game (356.1), 21st in points allowed per game (26.5), 20th in passing yards allowed per game (243.5) and are 13th in rushing yards allowed per game (112.5). Garrett leads the team in sacks with 12 and defensive end Olivier Veron has eight sacks. It's a defense that doesn't have a lot of household names and is pretty weak at the linebacker and safety positions. The Steelers are dead last in the league in rushing, averaging just 84.4 yards per game. The last time James Conner rushed over 100 yards in a game was against the Browns in Week 6. The Steelers set the record for the fewest rushing yards in a 16-game season in 2013 with 1,383. They're currently at 1,264.
- After playing just six quarters in 2019 due to suffering a season-ending elbow injury that required surgery, Roethlisberger finished the regular season completing 399 of 608 passes (65.6%) for 3,803 yards, 33 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 94.1. Heading into Week 17, Roethlisberger's 608 pass attempts are the most in the league. However, he averaged just 6.3 yards per pass attempt, which ranks 32nd in the league.
- Watt completed the regular season with 53 total tackles, 43 of those being solos, 15 sacks, 23 tackles for a loss, 41 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, seven passes defended and one interception. Watt will be a sack shy of tying James Harrison's franchise single-season sack record of 16, which he posted in 2008. Los Angeles Rams' defensive tackle Aaron Donald could surpass Watt as the league's sack leader on Sunday. Watt has 15 sacks and Donald goes into Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals with 13.5. Watt should still be the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year regardless of what Donald does against Arizona as he leads the league in tackles for a loss (23) and quarterback hits (41) as well.
- Strong safety Terrell Edmunds (shoulder) and Chris Boswell (groin) have both been ruled out for Sunday's game. Edmunds did not practice all week and Boswell missed the last two days of practice. With Edmunds out, it's expected that Sean Davis will fill in for him at strong safety.
This is the third game this year that Boswell will miss. He was out last Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts with a groin injury that continues to be an issue and missed the Week 13 game against the Washington Football Team with a hip injury. Matthew Wright will be the kicker against Cleveland. Wright is 1 of 1 on field-goal attempts and has made all six of his extra points in the two games that he played this year when Boswell was inactive.
For the Browns, offensive lineman Nick Harris has been ruled out for Sunday's game. Linebackers Tae Davis (ankle) and Sione Takitaki (ankle), along with offensive lineman Kendall Lamm (illness) and Wyatt Teller (ankle) are listed as questionable.
The Browns have been dealing with a COVID-19 situation this week. They had no positive tests on Friday and they were able to conduct a practice, but a coach tested positive on Saturday and they had to close the facility once again and did meetings virtually. The Browns announced on Thursday that they've placed linebacker Malcolm Smith and cornerback Denzel Ward on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Both Smith and Ward will be out for Sunday's game, but both reportedly tested positive, so they could possibly miss a playoff game if the Browns were to make the postseason. Along with Ward and Smith, linebacker B.J. Goodson, free safety Andrew Sendejo, tight end Harrison Bryant and cornerback Kevin Johnson are also on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Strong safety Karl Joesph was removed from the reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday.
The Browns also announced on Saturday that offensive line coach Bill Callahan and assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters will not coach in Sunday’s game due to COVID-19 protocols. Coaching assistant Ryan Cordell will handle the offensive line’s game day coaching responsibilities. Wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Chad O’Shea will also not coach on Sunday due to COVID-19 protocols. Callie Brownson will replace him as the receivers coach.