Updated: Jan 11
The Browns clinched their first playoff berth since the 2002 season with their, 24-22, win over the Steelers last week. The Steelers were without eight starters in the game, however, as Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey, T.J. Watt, Terrell Edmunds (shoulder), Chris Boswell (groin), Eric Ebron (COVID-19) and Joe Haden (COVID-19) did not play. Roethlisberger, Heyward, Pouncey and Watt were held out so they could rest up for the playoffs. Minus Haden, who is still on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the Steelers will be at full strength against the Browns on Sunday night at Heinz Field. The Browns won't be playing against the "junior varsity" team anymore.
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. The Steelers are 2-0 against the Browns in the playoffs with their other win coming in 1994 in the divisional round. The Browns' last two playoff appearances were both losses to the Steelers and they haven't won at Heinz Field since 2003, losing 17 straight.
- The Steelers are 77-60-1 all-time against the Browns and they are 22-5-1 against Cleveland under Mike Tomlin. Since 1999, the Steelers are 36-8-1 against the Browns. Roethlisberger is 24-2 in his career against Cleveland, including a game in which the Steelers beat the Browns, 30-9, on Nov. 15, 2015. Roethlisberger came in relief of Landry Jones in the first quarter and threw for 379 yards and three touchdowns.
- The Steelers are 8-7 in the playoffs under Tomlin and 5-3 at home. Roethlisberger is 13-8 in the playoffs and 6-4 at Heinz Field. In the playoffs, Roethlisberger has completed 422 of 676 passes (62.4%) for 5,256 yards, 30 touchdowns, 24 interceptions and has a quarterback rating of 86.5.
- Since the 2011 season, the Steelers are 3-5 in the playoffs. Their three wins came against the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2015 wild-card game, the Miami Dolphins in the 2016 wild-card game and the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2016 divisional-round game. The three opposing quarterbacks in those games were A.J. McCarron, Matt Moore and Alex Smith.
- Sunday night will be the 15th time in NFL history teams have played back-to-back in Week 17 and on Wild Card Weekend, with the last instance being the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings playing back-to-back games to end the 2012 season.
- The Steelers have not lost twice to Cleveland in a single season since 1988. The Browns haven't won a playoff game since the 1994 season and haven't won a road playoff game since 1969.
- The Steelers are currently 6-point favorites against the Browns and the over/under is 47.5 points, according to Oddsshark.com. The Browns are 1-4 against the spread in their last five games against the Steelers and are 3-13-1 straight up in their last 17 games against Pittsburgh, per Oddsshark.com. The Browns are 3-8 against the spread in their last 11 games. The Steelers went just 1-4 straight up and 2-3 against the spread over their last five games. Pittsburgh is 7-1 straight up and 5-3 against the spread at home this season and the over is 3-0 in the Steelers' last three postseason games.
- 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 were the most in the league. However, he averaged just 6.3 yards per pass attempt, which ranks 32nd in the league.
Ben Roethlisberger will play his 22nd playoff game in his career on Sunday night against the Browns, which is the fifth-most all-time. Roethlisberger is 13-8 in the playoffs and would tie Peyton Manning, John Elway and Terry Bradshaw in playoff wins for third-most all-time with a win over Cleveland.
Roethlisberger, however, knows the scarcity of having the opportunity to play in a playoff game.
"I think every player should approach this playoff game like it could be their last playoff game ever," Roethlisberger said on Wednesday in a Zoom interview with the media. "We've used examples of players and coaches who have been in this league for a long time that have never been in the postseason, never been to a Super Bowl, whatever it may be. I think it's prudent for every player to take that mindset and approach. I know I am because nothing is guaranteed in the game, or this world."
Heyward, another veteran, knows this possibly could be the final playoff run of his career.
“For me, there aren’t a lot of opportunities left, and I really have to take advantage of it," Heyward said. "It’s a privilege to make it to the playoffs. Look at the last two seasons. I thought we had really good teams, but we didn’t make it. I’m going to relish this.”
Mason Rudolph was successful when throwing deep against the Browns in the regular-season finale, completing two 41-yard passes (one to Claypool and the other to Johnson), a 26 yarder to JuJu Smith-Schuster, a 47 yarder to Johnson and a 28-yard touchdown pass to Claypool in the fourth quarter.
Rudolph finished the game 22 of 39 (56.4%) for a career-high 315 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and had a quarterback rating of 89.2.
Roethlisberger and the deep passing game finally took off in the second half against the Indianapolis Colts, which led to a 17-point second-half comeback win. The Steelers will need much of the same against the Browns, and considering that Rudolph had success throwing deep against Cleveland, Roethlisberger should have his way as well. The Browns will be without star cornerback Denzel Ward and cornerback Kevin Johnson on Sunday, as they are still on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Through 16 games in the regular season, it's evident that the Steelers can't run the ball. They'll have to beat Cleveland with Roethlisberger's right arm and attack the Browns' secondary down the field.
- The Browns rely heavily on their rushing attack, which ranks third in the league, averaging 148.4 yards per game. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are a dangerous duo in the backfield, with Chubb rushing over 1,000 yards and Hunt rushing over 800 yards. Chubb leads the team in rushing with 1,067 yards on 190 carries (5.6 average) and 12 touchdowns. Chubb broke off a 47-yard touchdown run in the first quarter against the Steelers last week. Hunt has rushed for 841 yards on 198 carries (4.2 carries) and six touchdowns. Hunt is also used as a weapon in the passing game with 38 receptions for 304 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.
It's imperative that the Steelers shut down Cleveland's rushing attack and force the Browns to be one-dimensional and put Mayfield in vulnerable situations.
“There will be plenty of Nick Chubb,” Heyward said. “They didn’t want to show their whole hand, but they are very capable of running the ball. He’s the engine that gets everyone going. If you stop the run, you put them at a disadvantage. They’re going to give him a lot of carries to see if he can set the tempo. If we don’t push him back and get into their backfield, we are in for a long day.”
Steelers' defensive coordinator Keith Butler also knows that it all starts with stopping Chubb if they are going to have any success in defending the Browns' offense. They'll also have to force turnovers, something that the defense hasn't done in three of their last five games. The Steelers didn't force a single turnover in games against Washington, Cincinnati and Cleveland, all three of which were losses.
"This game right here, all the daggum cards are on the table," Butler said. "You don’t get a chance to make mistakes and make up for those mistakes the next week. It doesn’t happen. For us, we need to get turnovers, we need to get sacks. We need to get 24 (Chubb) on the ground. There’s a lot of things we need to do going into this game, and that is part of it. That’s a big part of it."
- On the season, Mayfield is completing 62.8 of his passes and has a 26-8 touchdown-interception ratio. Mayfield has done a good job taking care of the football this year, throwing just one interception in his last nine games. Mayfield has been sacked eight times in his two games against the Steelers this season. Last week against the Steelers, Mayfield completed 63.0 percent of his passes for 196 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 97.1, along with 44 yards rushing on six carries and a long of 28 yards.
"He is a guy that you have to consider because he can scramble if you notice what he does," Butler said of Mayfield. "He prefers to throw when he scrambles to his right and he prefers to run when he scrambles to his left. The thing we have to do is make sure we don’t let him out much and we keep him in the pocket and make him see if he can see over those guys in front of him. They boot him, they do what we call dash or rollout passes and stuff like that to get him on the edge to see people and stuff like that. He’s pretty good at doing it. So we have to be aware of them trying to do that, too. Run the boots and then try to run what we call dashes, too. Those things we have to defend. We have to do a much better job of defending these guys than we did last week."
Mayfield's 54.9 quarterback rating against the Steelers in Week 6 was 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 is 2-3 in his career against the Steelers and has never thrown over 200 yards in a game against Pittsburgh. Both of Mayfield's wins against the Steelers came against backup quarterbacks. He is 0-2 when playing Roethlisberger.
- The Browns' offensive line allowed 26 sacks this season, which is the eight-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. In fact, Conklin was named first-team All-Pro this season. Pro Football Focus had the Browns' offensive line ranked No. 1 in the league this year. Cleveland will be without Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio since he tested positive for COVID-19 this week, which is a huge loss for the Browns. Left guard Michael Dunn is expected to start in place of Bitonio. Look for Heyward to create havoc on Sunday against a backup guard. The Steelers led the league in sacks with 56 and had four sacks last week against the Browns, and that was without Heyward and Watt, who is the odds-on favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year and was named first-team All-Pro in 2020.
- On defense, the Browns are pretty average across the board. They rank 17th in yards allowed per game (358.4), 21st in points allowed per game (26.2), 22nd in passing yards allowed per game (247.6) and are ninth in rushing yards allowed per game (110.8). All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett leads the team in sacks with 12, but he has just 2.5 sacks in his last five games since coming off the reserve/COVID-19 list. The Browns will be without defensive end Olivier Vernon, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the regular-season finale. Vernon had nine sacks in the regular season. It's a big blow for the Browns' defense to not have Vernon in tomorrow night's game. Overall, it's a defense that doesn't have a lot of household names and is pretty weak at the linebacker and safety positions. They also are decimated at the cornerback position without having Ward and Johnson.
- The Steelers finished the season dead last in rushing and yards per carry, averaging just 84.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per attempt. The last time James Conner rushed over 100 yards in a game was against the Browns in Week 6. Conner rushed for 37 yards on nine carries (4.1) average in last week's game against Cleveland. Conner has 10 receptions for 70 yards in the last two games.
- Mayfield's favorite targets are wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins, along with tight end Austin Hooper. Landry leads the team in both receptions (72) and receiving yards (840). Hunt leads the team in touchdown receptions with five. The Browns rank 24th in passing yards per game (221.2) and are 14th in points per game (25.5). The Steelers rank two spots ahead of Cleveland, averaging 26.0 points per game. On defense, the Steelers rank third in points allowed per game (19.5), third in yards allowed per game (305.8), third in passing yards allowed per game (194.4) and 11th in rushing yards allowed per game (111.4). Although, the Steelers have allowed over 100 yards on the ground in five of their last six games.
- The Steelers finished the season tied for third in the best turnover differential at plus-9 with 27 takeaways and 18 giveaways. The Steelers tied for first in the league in interceptions with 18 and their 27 takeaways were the second-most in the NFL. The Browns had the ninth-best turnover differential at plus-five with 21 takeaways and 16 giveaways.
- The Browns' third-down and red zone offense against the Steelers' third-down and red zone defense will be a matchup to watch in the game. The Browns rank seventh in third-down offense, converting at 44.90%, and rank third in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns at a rate of 73.58%. The Steelers rank fifth in third-down defense, allowing conversions at a 37.39% rate, and rank sixth in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns at a rate of 55.56%.
- On the injury front, the Steelers are a pretty healthy unit right now as kicker Chris Boswell was the only player that wasn't a full participant on Friday. Boswell, who is dealing with a groin injury was limited for the second consecutive day. The Steelers have no players on the injury status list for Sunday. Special teams coordinator Danny Smith said Boswell will be a game-time decision.
The Steelers activated tight end Eric Ebron and outside linebacker Cassius Marsh from the reserve/COVID-19 on Thursday. Both Ebron and Marsh were deemed as close contacts to cornerback Joe Haden, who tested positive for the virus. Both Ebron and Marsh were deemed as close contacts to cornerback Joe Haden, who tested positive for the virus. All three were placed on the list on Jan. 2 and missed the regular-season finale against the Browns. Haden is still on the list and he's not expected to play on Sunday against Cleveland.
The Steelers announced today that they've activated left guard Matt Feiler and inside linebacker Robert Spillane to the 53-man roster from the reserve/injured list. The team also elevated tight end Kevin Rader to the 53-man roster from the practice squad and waived outside linebacker Tegray Scales. According to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, both Feiler and Spillane are expected to start on Sunday night. With the way rookie Kevin Dotson has played in the last three games in Feiler's absence, it's a little surprising that Tomlin would give the nod to Feiler. Even as a rookie, Dotson has played better than Feiler at left guard this season. Feiler is better suited for right tackle.
The Browns have been dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak for the past three weeks. The Browns were able to conduct their first practice of the week on Friday.
For Cleveland, right tackle Jack Conklin (knee/illness), defensive end Myles Garrett (shoulder), cornerback Terrance Mitchell (not injury related), wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (concussion), defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (neck), cornerback M.J. Stewart Jr. (calf) and right guard Wyatt Teller (ankle) are all listed as questionable for Sunday.
Browns' head coach Kevin Stefanski, who will miss Sunday's game due to testing positive for COVID-19, is confident about Garrett and Richardson playing against the Steelers. The Browns took a flight to Pittsburgh on Saturday instead of taking a bus, which they normally do. Conklin, who's dealing with an illness traveled solo to Pittsburgh. The Browns assistant coaches drove to Pittsburgh separately as well while players flew out of an abundance of caution. Mitchell (false positive) also made the trip. A couple of other players were believed to have traveled individually because of virus concerns.
On Friday, the Browns placed free safety Jovante Moffatt on the reserve/COVID-19 list and activated center Javon Patterson from the list. Along with Moffatt, cornerback Denzel Ward, cornerback Kevin Johnson, left guard Joel Bitonio, wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge are on the reserve/COVID-19 list and will miss Sunday's game. The Browns activated tight end Harrison Bryant, strong safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. and linebacker Malcolm Smith from the reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday.
The Browns were without offensive line coach Bill Callahan, assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters and wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Chad O’Shea last week against the Steelers due to COVID-19 protocols. O'Shea returned from COVID-19 quarantine on Friday and will coach on Sunday, but Callahan and Peters won't make the trip to Pittsburgh. In addition, tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard will be out due to COVID-19. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will serve as the acting head coach. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will take over play-calling duties with Stefanski out.