Friday, December 31, 2010

A sad finish

The last time the Browns entertained the Pittsburgh Steelers at CBS in week 14 last season, they harassed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger all evening to the tune of eight sacks, 12 hits and numerous hurries in 40 dropbacks. In essence, they all but filleted Big Ben in a 13-6 victory that launched a four-game, end-of-the-season winning streak that probably saved Eric Mangini's job.

It also greased the skids for the defending Super Bowl champions, who failed to make the playoffs. Don't think for a minute that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin isn't reminding his team of that game on a daily basis this week as he prepares for Sunday's season closer against the Browns at CBS.

The big difference this season is the Steelers have already clinched a playoff spot. But they want a lot more because they sit atop the AFC North tied with Baltimore and own the tie-breaker, but have not clinched a first-week bye. And that is the incentive they have against the Browns, whose only incentive lately seems to be escaping with as few injuries as possible.

One would think Cleveland would love nothing better than to knock off the Steelers to garner a small measure of self respect as this disappointing season concludes. A loss to the Browns would tumble the Steelers to the No. 6 seed and send them on the road, probably against the New England Patriots in week two. They couldn't beat the Pats in Pittsburgh this season.

Let's see now . . . beat the Browns and secure the No. 2 seed, a first-round bye and home field advantage for at least one game, or lose to Cleveland and . . . well, you know the rest.

In other words, Sunday's game against the Browns will be like a playoff game for the Steelers. There's too much at stake to take the Browns lightly.

That's the motivation Big Ben and his crew will bring to Cleveland this weekend. As if avenging last season's loss in Cleveland wasn't motivation enough.

As for momentum, the Steelers own that, too, winning five of their last six games. The Browns, meanwhile, are staggering toward what most likely will be a finish exactly the opposite of last season's, having lost their last three games. A repeat of last season's 5-11 record also seems inevitable.

A quick look at the statistics reveals some interesting facts. For example, the Browns have allowed the third-fewest points in the AFC this season. Not bad for a 5-10 team. Then you notice the top two teams in that category are Pittsburgh, which has permitted 68 fewer points than the Browns, and Baltimore. The Steelers, in fact, lead the National Football League in that stat.

Stingy doesn't begin to describe the kind of defense Dick LeBeau runs in Pittsburgh. The older he gets, it seems, the better the Steelers play. His zone blitz scheme is now used by just about every NFL team.

That defense this season has created 22 fumble recoveries, 18 interceptions and 41 sacks. It has permitted just 20 touchdowns, a paltry five on the ground, and surrendered a measly 61 points in the last six games.

You run against Pittsburgh as effectively as you do against Baltimore. Translation: Not at all. The Steelers have yielded opponents just 961 rushing yards this season. That's 64 yards a game. And with Peyton Hillis hurting, it looks as though the Cleveland ground game will not be a major factor this week.

That means we're most likely going to find out how Colt McCoy, who threw for 281 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in week 6 against Pittsburgh, handles the Cleveland winter weather with his throws. His effort last week against Cincinnati turned into an abysmal failure. A strong-armed quarterback can make throws through the elements and McCoy, at least in that game, was anything but a strong-armed quarterback.

The Cleveland offense has struggled the last half of the season. In the last four games, it has produced just four touchdowns and 46 points total as it blunders toward the finish line.

Cleveland's defense, meanwhile, is running on fumes. Due to the inefficiency of the offense, it has spent way too much time on the field. And it will face a Pittsburgh offense that dismantled that defense in week 6.

In that one, you'll recall, Roethlisberger came off his season-openng four-game suspension, shook off the rust almost immediately and crafted a 257-yard, three-touchdown game in a 28-10 victory. And he wasn't sacked once.

Big Ben has 15 TD passes and only five picks in his 11 outings this season, but his beaten-up offensive line has allowed 44 sacks. The big guy from Findlay has hit the ground 32 times in those 11 games.

So there's hope the Browns can muster a pass rush -- now that would be a novelty -- sometime during the afternoon. At 5-10, there's no sense in playing not to lose.

If the Browns are, indeed, playing for Mangini's job, an aggressive game plan on both sides of the ball would be in order. One can only hope, can't one?

Adding it all up, there can be only one conclusion. The Steelers gain the No. 2 seed in the AFC, the Browns close out the season with a four-game losing streak and Mangini's job clearly hangs in the balance. Make it:

Pittsburgh 28, Browns 10 (and it'll be a defensive touchdown)

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