PREGAME STRETCH: Cleveland at Pittsburgh

For Steelers: Who plays? How long? What happens if the Patriots are losing?

THE GAME: CLEVELAND BROWNS (0-15) VS. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-3)

CBS, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., HEINZ FIELD, 68,400.

Announcers: Spero Dedes and Adam Archuleta. After all those prime time games with A-list broadcasters, hearing from the CBS No. 6 team should be fun. We’ve always liked Dedes, but he seems to have fallen off the map since the Jeremy Lin slur controversy in 2012. Also, we’re not sure if Archuleta has ever done a Steelers game. We don’t remember it if he did. Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Frigid, high of 12. We will confess that we have tickets for this game and there is no way in hell we are sitting out in 12-degree temperatures on New Year’s Eve. We’d expect at least 10,000 empty seats, if not more. It would be nice if the deep freeze hangs around for a while, though, if Jacksonville does indeed come to Pittsburgh for the Division Round. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Jerome Boger. You’ll remember Boger got the controversial assignment in the 2013 Super Bowl and, interestingly, he hasn’t worked a single playoff game since. Another interesting tidbit we discovered this week is that the Patriots believe Boger has a grudge against them. We like him more already. This year, this crew couldn’t be more average, calling 13.0 penalties per game for 114.4 years assessed against league averages of 13.4 and 116.1. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: The Steelers handed the Browns their first of 15 losses back in September in a sloppy 21-18 opening win where Anthony Chickillo’s TD recovery of a blocked punt was the difference. Pittsburgh has won the last six games in this series, including a similar one last New Year’s Day where its reserves pulled out an improbable overtime W on a Landry Jones-to-Cobi Hamilton overtime touchdown pass.

The line: Pittsburgh -11/39. Smarts say: This one opened at -14, which would indicate Vegas thought the Steelers would play their starters. By Thursday, it had fallen three full points, meaning bettors do not think the Steelers will be playing their starters. The over/under also fell, from 41 to 39, likely linked to the Arctic forecast. Put everything together and you’re looking at something like 25-14 Steelers. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 2nd passing, 20th rushing, 7th scoring (25.2 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (21)

CLE defense, 19th passing, 7th rushing, 30th scoring (25.5 ppg), 20th sacks (31)

When the Browns have the ball:

CLE offense, 26th passing, 19th rushing, 32nd (14.0 ppg), 26th sacks allowed (44)

PIT defense, 5th passing, 10th rushing, 5th scoring (18.9 ppg), 2nd sacks (50)

Giveaway/Takeaway: CLE -28; PIT +2

So…: Statistically, the Browns run the ball well and stop the run. That should lead to some success but… -28 turnover differential. How is that even possible? Information courtesy www.nfl.com and www.espn.com.

Key matchups: Steelers protection schemes vs. Myles Garrett

Why: Garrett didn’t play in the first meeting between these two teams and missed four other games in his rookie season, but when he has played, the No. 1 overall pick has shown flashes of brilliance in the pass-rush game (6 sacks, 9 hurries). Figuring DeShone Kizer will turn it over a couple times to Pittsburgh, the formula for a Steelers win involves Landry Jones not doing likewise and Garrett is the guy who could wreck that plan. With Le’Veon Bell also likely not playing, it will interesting to gauge how both Stevan Ridley and Frenchy Touissant handle pass pro.

Player on the spot: T.J. Watt

Why: OK kid, Deebo doesn’t live here anymore, let’s see what you got. Seriously, the Steelers have been trying to get rid of James Harrison for the past four years, hoping one of their young defensive players would blossom into the kind of defensive difference maker Harrison was in his prime. And one after another, they’ve fallen to the wayside as Harrison remained. Now, with Harrison gone for good, it’s T.J. Watt’s show. Watt’s stats are fine – 6 sacks, 12 hurries, 34 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble – but they don’t reflect the flashes of potential the rookie has shown to be truly dominant. At a time when many rookies are hitting the wall, the Steelers are asking Watt to elevate his game. That’s a big challenge.

Quick hits:

+ So the big question in this game is who/how/when Mike Tomlin will rest his starters. Obviously, Antonio Brown will not play. It also sounds like Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell will not play, but will they be active? You’d hate to look up at halftime and see the Jets up two TDs on the Patriots and not have your studs available, right? Beyond that, we’re interested in how much someone like Vance McDonald plays. He’s obviously been a big plus for the Steelers offense when’s he healthy, which has been almost never. So does McDonald need rest this week? Or does he need work, having missed so much time?

+ Antonio Brown was voted Steelers MVP by his teammates this week in an annual farce. You could build a strong case that Brown was Pittsburgh’s most outstanding player this year, but Ben Roethlisberger was the most valuable one, just as he has been nearly every one of his 14 years in the league. Roethlisberger has won the team MVP only once, and while we understand the sentiment “you can’t give it to the QB every year,” you should at least give it to the QB some years. Without AB this season, Pittsburgh is likely 10-6, give or take a game. Without #7, they are likely 6-10. End of discussion.

Playoff picture:

+ The Steelers are in as the #1 or #2 seed. If New England wins, Pittsburgh is #2. If the Jets stun their hated rivals with a loss or tie and Pittsburgh wins, the Steelers would be home for as long as they survive in the AFC Playoffs.

+ One thing we did not fully grasp last week is the Ravens have the inside track for the #5 seed, rather than the #6 spot, if they win, and still have a great shot at the #6 spot if they lose. We think Baltimore at Kansas City is a much less desirable matchup for John Harbaugh’s crew and makes it much more likely the chalk holds in the Wild Card round. That said, don’t rule out the Bengals beating the Ravens Sunday.

+ The NFC is wide open now with the Carson Wentz injury and to our eyes the most dangerous team might not make the field and that’s the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons must beat the 11-4 Panthers Sunday to be assured a spot. If they lose and the Seahawks beat the Cardinals, the defending conference champs would be out. If the Falcons don’t make it, we think the Rams have a good chance to “shock the world” and make Jeff Fisher look even worse than he already does.

The Harrison fiasco:

+ We won’t take up too much space with this as we’re sure you’re sick of it.

+ That said, many Steelers fans are rewriting a history with a James Harrison that never existed. He played without sentimentality for Pittsburgh because they paid him to do so. He was never alleged to be a great teammate and no one cared because he helped the team win games, which is really all that fans care about. He never pretended to be anything other than what he was, a professional football mercenary (and a damn good one in his prime). We love that approach to football and that, combined with a highlight reel of game-changing plays, if why James Harrison remains our all-time favorite Steelers player. That said, if even half of the childish behavior being attributed to Harrison over the past six weeks is accurate, it sounds like a classic case of that guy described above hanging around too long. Harrison was never going to exit football gracefully.

+ But, if you think Harrison must be over the hill because he wasn’t playing in Pittsburgh, we’re just not sure yet whether that’s true. The Steelers have been trying to have younger players take over at linebacker for years and it’s becoming clear now why that was such a difficult process, they couldn’t live with James Harrison and they couldn’t live without him (largely due to Jarvis Jones being unable to carry the load). Now that dysfunction has been removed, it’s “sink or swim time” for Bud Dupree (who sure looked like he’s ready to swim at Houston) and “I’ll show them time” for Harrison, who hasn’t played enough snaps this year for anyone to say what level he’s playing at. With the shape of the Patriots’ front seven, we think we will all find out.

+ Finally, how will this all affect Harrison’s Steelers legacy? First, we think it’s important to note that Harrison likely does not care. Second, we think he should because there’s a decent living to be made as a beloved ex-Steeler. Third, if the Steelers and Patriots do meet again and the Patriots win, we do think bad feelings surrounding Harrison will linger for quite some time. If that doesn’t happen, we think this will all largely be forgotten within a year or two. Jack Lambert left the team on iffy terms and does not participate in any team-related functions in his retirement and it hasn’t impacted how he’s viewed by fans. We think the same will largely be true of Harrison some day.

The pick: The Steelers did everything they possibly could to lose this game last year on the final day of the season and the Browns would have none of it, so we don’t see how you can pick against the backup-laden home team this year. The defense could dominate this game on its own, if the starters play, but will they? We think there will be enough lack of continuity with the Steelers that we are going to take the Browns to cover, but barely… Pittsburgh 24-14.

Last week:

We hit the Steelers win but expected a closer game than the Texans offered, leaving us at 10-5 straight up and 9-6 against the spread for the season.

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