Winless Browns just barely bad enough (again) to lose to Steelers backups

The score: Pittsburgh 28, Cleveland 24

The bottom line: In what has become a familiar scene, the hapless Cleveland Browns were on the verge of closing their hapless season (and this time, avoiding infamy) with a win over the playoff-bound Steelers “backup lineup” and simply could not finish it off, this time with a hapless receiver dropping a wide-open fourth-down pass in the games waning moments. The win closes the books on a stellar 13-3 season for the Steelers where there’s reason to believe the best is yet to come.

It was over when…: As Landry Jones did the only thing he could do to lose this game (turn the ball over twice), as Deshone Kizer knifed through the sluggish Pittsburgh defense, as the Browns marched methodically downfield toward a go-ahead score, there was little doubt the moment would come. The only question was in what form. This time, it was Corey Coleman, the Browns’ “bust from Baylor,” who sealed the team’s fate Sunday and assured their 0-16 season by dropping a perfectly placed fourth-down pass from Kizer that would have set his team up with a first down at the Pittsburgh 12 with 90 seconds to play.

Play of the day: And to think, we all (including this corner) were questioning Juju Smith-Schuster’s toughness and NFL readiness in the preseason. The kid has gone from a surprise to a breath of fresh air to a threat to an honest-to-goodness NFL star before our eyes in these past few months. His 96-yard kickoff return for a TD Sunday, where he ran through a handful of would-be tacklers and then outran the rest, was his eighth TD of the year, his second of 96+ yards and Pittsburgh’s first kickoff return TD in seven years. Certainly, he’ll be returning kickoffs in the playoffs, right? Right?

Player of the game:

+ One of the biggest upgrades the Steelers made in the offseason that has paid remarkable dues already was adding Tyson Alualu along the defensive line in place of Cam Thomas. Given a chance to start Sunday with Cam Heyward resting, Alualu was dominant with eight tackles and two sacks and looking a lot like… Cam Heyward.

Playoff picture:

+ Well, then. The Buffalo Bills, who began the day with a 13 percent chance of making the playoffs, shook things up a little in the AFC, by taking care of their business in Miami and then watching the Ravens blow a late lead to the Bengals. Unfortunately for Buffalo, they lost Shady McCoy to what looked like a serious ankle injury, meaning they’re going into Jacksonville next week severely outmanned. The #6 seeded Bills are the only AFC Wild Card Weekend team that cannot come to Pittsburgh in the next round.

+ Tennessee claimed the fifth spot, taking care of the suddenly listless Jaguars, who played all their starters in a meaningless game and lost. The Buffalo shocker means the Titans, instead of a warm-weather rematch with the Jags, now likely face a frigid trip to Kansas City.

+ It certainly looks like the chalk will hold in the AFC (which likely means it won’t) while the NFC has some crazy marquee matchups (Falcons at the Rams and Panthers at the Saints) that probably will end up as blowouts. If KC and Jacksonville do, in fact, win in the AFC that’ll bring the Jags back to Pittsburgh for a rematch. You would think there is one Steelers player would has a little extra incentive to hope that happens. He wears #7.

+ The other Pa. team has secured the No. 1 spot in the NFC, but seems like a longshot to advance with Nick Foles stinking up the offense. In fact, we’d bet the NFC rep will come out of the Wild Card round.

Hot topics:

+ Yes, his sacks came in garbage time, but if you watched the Jets-Patriots game you saw definitively that James Harrison is not “over the hill,” as he was always around the football and delivered several punishing hits (against pass catchers, no less). Whether he can maintain that pace and stay healthy is another issue, of course. Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Bud Dupree was absolutely invisible against a terrible team, recording not a single tackle, QB pressure or pass defensed. It’s pure speculation, but we think this gets to the heart of issue with Harrison. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler have been trying (and failing) to replace him with “their guys” for the past four seasons. And while people smarter about football than us can swear that Dupree is making contributions that don’t show on the stat sheet, to the naked eye, it appears the better linebacker was wearing red and blue Sunday. You know in Harrison’s heart, he believes that. Dupree obviously upped the ante in the comparison with his statements last week and it will be interesting (and telling) to see if he can elevate his game in the playoffs.

+ By all accounts, the Steelers got through Week 17 healthy, which was priority No. 1 for the day. By several NFL insider accounts, they can expect Antonio Brown will be reasonably healthy when they take the field again on Jan. 13 or 14. That leaves “rust” as the major concern before the playoffs begin.

+ Landry Jones made a couple bad decisions Sunday, but he did nothing to alter our opinion that he is a quality NFL backup and Pittsburgh is lucky to have him.

In the booth:

+ Spero Dedes could not decide between “Smith-Schuster”, “Smith” or “Schuster.” We can’t say we blame him because we do it all the time, but that is the first time we’ve noticed it by a broadcaster.

+ We thought Adam Archuleta was pretty good. When Landy Jones threw a first quarter pick into quadruple coverage and everyone was tweeting “I can’t imagine what Jones thought he saw,” Archuleta quickly displayed what Jones thought he saw: He thought he saw man, but it was really man underneath zone.

Game mismanagement:

+ The tape of DeShone Kizer’s timeout with :02 left in the first quarter, :02 on the play clock and with the ball at his own 1-yard line had to go directly to the Game Management Hall of Fame (which we just might open if y’all aren’t careful).

Zebra hunting:

+ We’re sure the players were just as happy as the fans and viewers that Jerome Boger’s crew stayed largely out of this one (12 flags, 92 yards), and when they did intercede, it was to call a penalty on the Browns. One of the few good things about games in single-digit temperatures is that the officials tend to disappear.

+ The game’s one replay challenge took waaaaaayyyyyyy too long as there was “clear and convincing” evidence in three replays that Stevan Ridley’s elbow was down with possession of the football.

Sweet tweet:

+ @Mel629_: Cue the Benny Hill music. (Blogger’s note: Great summary of the final three quarters of this game.)

Next week: Everyone in black and gold, not just the studs, can rest next week and watch how the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs unfolds. It will be interesting to see if Mike Tomlin has any update at all on Antonio Brown’s health at his Tuesday press conference this week. No mention would equal bad news, even with at least 13 days to get ready.


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