PREGAME STRETCH: Browns at Steelers

In a rare meaningless game, avoiding injuries become paramount

Cleveland Browns (1-14) at Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) at Heinz Field, capacity 65,050; Sunday at 1 p.m., CBS

Announcers: Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon. Annoyance factor: It’s all relative. Apparently, Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts are now the No. 2 CBS team and these guys are No. 3, but compared to the “No. 1” team, these guys are great. However, they won’t be anywhere near as good as Tirico, Dungy and Flutie were last week. Harlan is becoming a cult here for his play-by-play radio calls of “idiots on the field” and he had another classic on Christmas night in Kansas City that included stats (“that was a 61-yard-run”). Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not?: Mostly cloudy, upper 30s. We’re not sure there’s been a Steelers season where weather was less of a factory than the soon to be complete one. That makes us wonder what might be in store for next weekend’s playoff game. Information courtesy www.weather.com.

How they rank: Cleveland offense: 28th passing, 24th rushing, 31st ppg; Pittsburgh defense: 15th passing, 6th rushing, 9th ppg; Pittsburgh offense: 5th passing, 11th rushing, 12th ppg; Cleveland defense: 21st passing, 31st rushing, 31st ppg; Sacks: Cleveland 32nd (22); Pittsburgh 12th (34); Sacks allowed: Cleveland 32nd (62), Pittsburgh 2nd (17). Comment: The Browns have surrendered 62 sacks, 19 more than the next-worst team in the league (Buffalo). Good thing they didn’t trade Joe Thomas and get several good young players for him. (More on Thomas below.) At the same time, Cleveland has sacked opposing quarterbacks only 22 times, again the worst in the league. Of course, those stats aren’t the worst problem for the Browns, who still can’t find an NFL-competent quarterback. It takes incompetence across the board to fail so thoroughly.

Referee: John Hussey. Competence factor: Shaky. This crew was terrible earlier this season for the Steelers game at Baltimore and Hussey himself has missed two blatant illegal hits on Ben Roethlisberger in the last two Steelers games he’s done (Mark Barron’s illegal hit at St. Louis that sidelined Roethlisberger last year and a vicious shot to the head and neck from Terrell Suggs earlier this year). Fortunately, Hussey won’t get that chance Sunday with Roethlisberger sitting this one out. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com and www.profootballreference.com.

The last time: The Steelers offense was bad, but the Browns was much worse in a 24-9 Pittsburgh win just before Thanksgiving. The Browns woeful offensive line surrendered eight sacks and allowed poor Cody Kessler to be concussed in the game. Ironically, Kessler might get the start again this week because Robert Griffin III was concussed last week in the Cleveland win over San Diego. Despite the subpar performance that included just one offensive touchdown, the Steelers won this game handily by not turning the ball over, a fete that likely would produce a similar result this Sunday, even with a lineup filled with reserves..

The line: Steelers -7.5. Smarts say: The Steelers were a 12.5-point favorite before they clinched Sunday so you can see the value of playing your key starters vs. reserves. The over/under of 44 (third week in a row; obviously way off the mark last week) means something like Steelers 26-18. Information courtesy www.dannysheridan.com and www.pregame.com.

Key matchup: Steelers starters vs. the injury bug. Make no mistake, this is the biggest and most important issue in this game. Mike Tomlin will ensure Ben Roethlisber, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown don’t get hurt by deactivating them, but other starters are going to have to play, many of them for the whole game, just by virtue of the numbers involved and the roster limit of a regular season game vs. a preseason one. The list of players who Pittsburgh can’t afford to lose starts on defense with Ryan Shazier, James Harrison and Javon Hargrave. Offensively, losing anyone on the line would hurt right now because of the high level the entire unit in playing at. Losing Maurkice Pouncey would have an additional “here we go again” psychological edge to it.  

Player on the spot: Steelers QB Landry Jones .. Because: Jones is eligible to become a free agent in March and Sunday’s game might be the closest thing to a job interview he’ll get a chance at before then. We’ll see a lot of Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates and DeMarcus Ayers on the receiving end of Jones passes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as Jones worked a ton with those three in preseason games. As noted above, the big thing for Jones in terms of a victory is to avoid turnovers against a Browns team that will self destruct is given the opportunity.

Playoff picture:

+ Pittsburgh is locked in as the AFC #3 seed and will host the #6 seed next weekend.

+ If New England beats Miami in an early game Sunday, the Dolphins will be the Steelers opponent (and the Patriots will be the #1 seed, meaning Pittsburgh could not face them until the AFC Championship).

+ Houston is locked in as the #5 seed and their opponent will be either Kansas City or Oakland.

+ If Oakland (and Matt McGloin) win at Denver in a Sunday late game, they are the AFC West champs and #2 seed. If Oakland loses and Kansas City defeats San Diego, the Chiefs win the division and get the bye. That result would be important because it puts KC in the Steelers path at Arrowhead Stadium.

+ The date and time of the Steelers first playoff game likely will be announced at halftime of the Sunday night game between the Packers and the Lions.

Quick hits:

+ All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas has been reported as trade bait multiple times in the past few years but always contended he wanted to stay in Cleveland and now we know why: He’s a Brown to the core. After winning last week to snap a 14-game losing streak and avoid a winless season, a tearful Thomas said the game was “almost like a Super Bowl.” No, Joe, it was nothing like a Super Bowl. Actually, it’s about as far away from a Super Bowl as you can get.

+ Pro Football Focus noted earlier this week that Jarvis Jones had 190 edge rushes this year without a sack, giving the him the dubious distinction of the least productive pass rusher in the league.That Pittsburgh erred in selecting Jones is no longer a debate. That said, the way they handled him this year can’t be faulted. They gave him a legitimate last chance (made easier to do, of course, by Bud Dupree’s injury) and cut his playing time completely when he failed again. It’s interesting (but hopefully not relevant) that Jones is still listed as second string at ROLB behind James Harrison on the Steelers depth chart. That would mean he’s an injury away from being right back in the thick of a playoff run.

+ Speaking of Dupree, he’s certainly been more productive than Jones so far with 3.5 sacks total, but that productivity is not coming off edge rushes. The sack he recorded against the Ravens Sunday was a microcosm of his play since he’s returned from injury. He was playing inside James Harrison on the right side and got zero push against a guard and was floating helplessly five yards from the action until Harrison beat his man and forced Flacco into Dupree’s arms.

+ Le’Veon Bell was voted the Steelers most valuable player this week. Le’Veon Bell is not the Steelers most valuable player. He is their most outstanding player, but Ben Roethlisberger is their MVP as he has been each year for the past 12 years (although you could make a case for James Harrison in 2008).

The pick:…It is extremely rare to see an NFL game that means literally nothing in the standings to either of the teams playing or another team trying to secure a playoff berth, but this is about as close as you can get. Sure, the Browns could screw up getting the No. 1 pick by winning, but they’re going to screw that up anyway, whether they pick first or second. We’re not even sure you could say anyone is playing for pride in this one. No, this is a game that has to be played because it’s on the schedule and we’ll take the team with designs on the real Super Bowl over the team that played its Super Bowl last week,… Steelers 28-14.

Last week: We were 70 seconds away from being annoyingly right about the Ravens beating the Steelers by a field goal, but we’ll gladly take the result and the “L” on our record, although the Ravens did cover. The split leaves us at 9-6 straight up and 8-7 against the spread.

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