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Pregame stretch:
Browns vs. Steelers

December 27, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Cleveland Browns (4-11) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8)
Sunday, 1 p.m. EST, CBS

Announcers: Spero Dedes and Steve Beuerlein
Annoyance factor: Anything will be an improvement over last week. This is will be the second time Steelers fans hear Dedes’ work this year (he did the Raiders game with Rich Gannon on color) and the first time this year for Beuerlein. As an aside, former WTAJ sports anchor John Dabkovich dropped this little piece of Altoona trivia on us this week via Twitter: Dedes once applied for a job at WTAJ (likely at some point after he graduated from Fordham in 2001 and before he landed his breakthrough gig as the Lakers radio play-by-play man in 2005).
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Weather - or not?: Cloudy, showers, temps around 40. This should feel like summer after the past two icebox games. The mild-ish temps might help the Steelers avoid the embarrassment of having the lowest-ever attendance at Heinz Field in a game that has playoff implications.
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How they rank
Cleveland offense: 12th passing, 27th rushing, 27th ppg
Pittsburgh defense: 8th passing, 22nd rushing, 18th ppg
Pittsburgh offense: 11th passing, 29th rushing, 16th ppg
Cleveland defense: 9th passing, 16th rushing, 23rd ppg
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Referee: Mike Carey (tentative)
Competence factor: Anything will be an improvement over last week, although we were surprised to hear NFL officiating guru Dean Blandino say he thought the Steelers had established possession after the blocked field goal last week against Green Bay. Carey and his crew are known for a “let ‘em play” style (as evidenced by the fact they didn’t call a penalty in the first Steelers-Bengals game this year until the third quarter) but that doesn’t mean they’re good (as evidenced by the fact that flag was an incorrect tripping call on Marcus Gilbert (now you remember, right?) that cost the Steelers 60 yards, possibly a win and perhaps a playoff spot).
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The line: Pittsburgh -7
Smarts say: It’s only taken two wins to restore the betting public’s faith in the Steelers as this game opened at -5.5 and jumped the 1.5 points in just a few hours. The over/under of 44 seems abnormally high for a December division game and would yield something like Steelers 26-19.
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Key matchups:
Browns WR Josh Gordon vs. Steelers DBs Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen
Because: Gordon has cooled considerably after a record-breaking midseason stretch (that included a 237-yard showing against Pittsburgh) but he’s just about the only offensive weapon the Browns have left and likely their only hope of winning Sunday, given how the Cleveland defense has floundered of late. The Steelers have been “playing it as it lies” with No. 1 receivers in recent weeks, allowing either corner to handle coverage, rather than having Taylor shadow the top guy. Both Tayler and Allen have played exceptionally well in stretches and exceptionally poorly in stretches this year and Pittsburgh will need a more even keel from both of them against Gordon to prevail.

Playoff possibilities
+ According to the fine folks at, Pittsburgh’s playoff chances stand at about 9 percent (or 1 in 11), that’s a far cry better than were they stood before last week’s games, 0.25 percent (or 1 in 400).
+ The equally fine folks at say the probabilities look like this for Pittsburgh’s only playoff scenario:
Steelers 62 percent likelihood of beating the Browns
Bengals 83 percent likelihood of beating the Ravens
Dolphins 67 percent likelihood of beating the Jets
Chargers 65 percent likelihood of beating the Chiefs

Long snap:
After seven years of botching and bungling, Mike Tomlin’s game management deficiencies have finally become a national issue. Amen.
If you’re a loyal reader of this blog, you’ve been clued in to each and every one of Tomlin’s goofs. But it’s taken the emergence of Twitter and a nationally televised (most of the country had been switched over from the Pats-Ravens game) mega-blunder against the Packers to finally put the Steelers coach in the kind of spotlight you don’t want to be in (for the second time in a month, no less, for Tomlin in that position).
Before we go any further, let’s take a minute to define game management. It is the art and science of using your six timeouts, the two two-minute warnings and the NFL’s rules for clock stoppages to help bring about the desired outcome to the end of each half. The most desired first-half outcome is scoring a touchdown on the final play of the second quarter (followed in desirability by scoring a field goal). The most desired second-half outcome is taking a knee with the lead and allowing the clock to run out, followed by scoring the winning points on the final play of the game (which is much more exciting than Option #1, of course, but not more desirable), followed by successfully defending an opponents’ attempt to win, followed by scoring the tying points, etc. etc. You get the picture.
Even though we here at the 15 Minutes Blog are huge time management geeks, we don’t take any amount of glee in the public criticism Tomlin is suffering. We like Tomlin as a football coach. His strengths as a leader and motivator far, far outweigh his weaknesses on game day (solid game management can win you a game or two over the course of a year, but weak leadership and motivation will lose you 16). BUT that doesn’t mean Tomlin doesn’t need to fix those weaknesses on game day. He does and, of course, he’s shown no inclination to do that. In fact, like an addict, he can’t even get to the first step in his rehab process, admitting he has a problem.
At his Monday press conference, Tomlin crazily defended his decision to NOT take two knees and kick a game-winning, 20-yard field goal on the game’s final play and instead give Green Bay 1:20 to try and tie things. He cited concerns about the snap (even though he was willing to let his third-string center execute a shotgun snap on the TD play), the weather conditions (which were so bad Pittsburgh had its first 100-rusher in more than a year) and Pittsburgh’s earlier block of a Green Bay kick (while not mentioning the 11 other flawless kicks in the game, including nine perfect PATs).
So, what gives with the denial routine? It’s likely a couple of things. As Bob Smizik pointed out in his Post-Gazette blog this week, some people have a mind for clock management and some don’t and Tomlin obviously doesn’t. (This is also why half the Steelers fan base is apoplectic about the Tomlin screwup and half can’t figure out what the big deal is.) In his Trib-Review postgame column, Dejan Kovacevic suggested help for Tomlin in the form of a game-management assistant (something we’ve suggested here more than once). It’s a great idea, of course, and one Tomlin isn’t likely to embrace because a) he’s stubborn b) he likely has concerns about adding another layer of coaching/communication, and c) he’d perceived it as losing some control (something no NFL head coach wants to do).
So while we’re glad Tomlin’s issues are becoming more well known, we don’t see much hope the problem will be fixed. So one of two things will happen: Tomlin will fix enough other things to start winning Super Bowls again, in which case, the game management issues will be overlooked again. Or this prolonged period of Pittsburgh mediocrity will continue to be dotted with the occasional game day fiasco, increasing the level of rancor about Tomlin in the vocal and emotional Steelers fan base.
Speaking of which, if probability holds and Pittsburgh misses the playoffs, the narrative likely will focus on Antonio Brown stepping on the sideline against the Dolphins and missing the postseason “by inches.” We’d counter it should focus on game management errors against Oakland and Baltimore and missing the postseason “by seconds.”

The pick: We enter the final week of this season much more optimistic about the Steelers near future than we were four months ago. That doesn’t mean we’re forecasting championships any time soon, but we think enough good things have happened over the second half of the season to quell concerns about a prolonged span of sub-.500 records. That said, we thing avoiding a sub-.500 mark this year is going to be a bigger challenge than many are assuming. The Steelers have some injury concerns and this has a trap-game feel to it, especially given how meekly the Browns laid down in Cleveland last month. But, we’re still talking about the Browns, and even if Pittsburgh struggles to throw the ball with Emmanuel Sanders missing or hobbled, struggles to run the ball behind that still-shaky line and struggles on defense as per usual, we’re just not sure the Cleve Brownies have the horses to take advantage of it. In an ugly sendoff... Steelers 20-19.
And just for fun:
Jets 28, Dolphins 27
Ravens 24, Bengals 23
Chiefs 30, Chargers 13
Last week: We were again one of the few who had the Steelers winning outright at Lambeau, bringing us to 7-8 straight up and 8-7 against the spread.

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