The Cleveland Browns can notch their first 11-win playoff season since 1994 by beating their nemesis from Pittsburgh on Sunday. If the Browns should lose, they would need help from the AFC South games to still make the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns
Sunday, January 3, 2021 – 01:00 PM EDT at FirstEnergy Stadium
The Browns are a 10-point favorite at most NFL betting sites. The spread looks off for a game involving a 12-3 team, but the Steelers are expected to start Mason Rudolph at quarterback and rest Ben Roethlisberger. They should and likely will rest other veteran starters as well. Still, given the rivalry and importance of this game for Cleveland, you should not expect the Steelers to just roll over and allow the Browns in the playoffs.
Cleveland: Triumph or Nightmare?
When the Browns were 9-3, this looked like a lock to be the greatest season the team has enjoyed since returning to the league in 1999. Then they lost the Game of the Year, 47-42, to the Ravens on a Monday night. Still a good effort against a tough foe. But then the Browns got a COVID surprise last Saturday when they found out their top four wide receivers were close contacts and would not be allowed to play against the Jets on Sunday. Baker Mayfield ended up throwing 53 passes (only 13 going to two random wideouts) in a comeback attempt that fell short with his second lost fumble in the final minutes. The Jets won their second game in a row after starting 0-13.
So now the Browns are down to needing a win or help against their most hated rival and a team they lost to 38-7 in Week 6. The good news is Mason Rudolph will be Pittsburgh’s quarterback. Rudolph threw four interceptions in a dreadful 21-7 loss at Cleveland in 2019. The bad news is that the only thing people remember from that game is when star defender Myles Garrett swung Rudolph’s helmet at his head in the closing seconds, leading to a brawl, plenty of controversy, and a suspension for Garrett.
This opens the nightmare possibility of Cleveland losing and missing the playoffs to their hated rival and, at least in Garrett’s case, most hated player. That is also rather strong motivation for Rudolph, who needs to prove he can play in this league.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Cleveland offense in this matchup. The wide receivers will be back, so Mayfield can throw to Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, and Donovan Peoples-Jones again. They still have the best running back duo in the league with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
There is also the fact that Pittsburgh should absolutely consider resting defensive stars such as Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Joe Haden. Due to COVID moving Pittsburgh’s schedule around more than any team this year, the Steelers have not had a true bye week since Week 4. These players could use the rest before the playoffs next week.
Mayfield had arguably the worst game of his career against the Steelers in October as the defense rattled him early. He has yet to throw for 200 yards against the Steelers in four starts (1-3 record). However, Mayfield has played much better in recent weeks, and he should not have to score a ton to win this game. Take away some of those key pieces on defense for Pittsburgh, and the Browns should be able to score at least 20 points with the talent they have.
Of course, things rarely go as planned for the Browns.
Steelers: The Ultimate Spoilers
The prospects of a team resting starters for Week 17 does not automatically mean a win for the opponent. Just last season, the Steelers needed a win in Baltimore to keep their playoff hopes alive, but they lost 28-10 to a Ravens team that rested most key players, including last season's MVP Lamar Jackson.
In 2004, the Bills (9-6) needed a win to make the playoffs and were 9.5-point favorites at home to a 14-1 Pittsburgh team that rested Roethlisberger and many other starters. James Harrison and Willie Parker made names for themselves that day in a 29-24 upset win that kept the Bills home in January.
We have also seen it in this rivalry. The Steelers are 8-0 against Cleveland in Week 17 since 2008. In 2016 and 2017, the Steelers rested their vaunted trio of Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown (as well as other starters), and they still beat Cleveland both times with Landry Jones at quarterback.
Mike Tomlin will not take a Cleveland game lightly, especially not after the Steelers played so much bad football in recent weeks. Even before the huge 17-point comeback on Sunday against the Colts, the Steelers did not look capable of winning another game this season before rallying. The Steelers have young receivers who need the reps before the playoffs.
The reason to like Cleveland in this matchup at the best betting sites is that Rudolph is a lousy quarterback, and it is hard to see how he can move this offense that is so dependent on throwing the ball. The Steelers are the first team in NFL history to win four games in a season without rushing for 50 yards, including last Sunday. Maybe the Steelers can find some rushing success in a different approach this week, but the offense will likely struggle to score many points.
While it would be the most Cleveland thing yet to lose to Mason Rudolph and miss the playoffs, I think the Browns save the season by winning this game. However, I still would take the Steelers +10 in my NFL picks as I do not see the Browns making it an easy win. Even with how poorly Rudolph played last season in Cleveland, that was still a 14-7 game with just over five minutes left.
The Steelers have trailed by 17 points in the second half of the last two games, but still only lost to Cincinnati by 10 points and won the other game. Since Tomlin became the coach in 2007, the Steelers (19) only trail the Patriots (18) with the fewest losses by more than 10 points.
Beating the Steelers’ backups may not be as rewarding for the Browns, but there is a possibility we’ll see these teams at full strength a week later in the wild card.