Saturday, December 31, 2011

No Steelers romp

There was some question earlier this week whether Ben Roethlisberger would be under center when the Pittsburgh Steelers journey up a couple of turnpikes for their second meeting with the Browns this season on Sunday.

A high ankle sprain suffered a few weeks ago, courtesy of a vice-like, high-low sack by Browns defensive tackles Brian Schaefering and Scott Paxson, finally put Big Ben on the bench last week against St. Louis.

But come Sunday, he’ll be ready. Count on it. Why? Because it is Cleveland week and there’s nothing Roethlisberger loves more than Cleveland week. Who can blame him?

In 14 games against the Browns, the big guy from Findlay has lost just once, the second meeting of the 2009 season. No wonder he loves playing against the Browns.

Added incentive for a Roethlisberger return, despite the fact he still can’t adequately step into his throws because of the bad ankle, is that the Steelers can still claim the AFC North championship. A Baltimore stumble in Cincinnati and a Steelers victory gives the title to Pittsburgh.

From a motivational standpoint, this game has significantly more meaning to the Steelers than Cleveland, which is simply playing out the string as it heads toward a yet another pathetic finish.

The Browns, who will close out the season ingloriously with six straight losses if they lose, have been Pittsburgh’s patsy in their last 23 meetings. In that span, during which the Browns have won just twice, the Steelers have outscored them, 565-285.

Translated, the Steelers have nearly doubled the Browns’ scoring total despite drafting much lower than Cleveland the last dozen seasons. And when it comes to Cleveland week, the Steelers always arrive at game time expecting to win. The Browns, on the other hand, hope to win.

It didn’t use to be that way in this great rivalry, which has become less of a rivalry in the last generation. Young fans of the Browns blink disbelievingly when the early history of this rivalry is recounted.

When the Browns first entered the National Football League, the Steelers were perennial doormats, resembling in many ways the current iteration of the Browns. The old Browns of coaches Paul Brown and Blanton Collier won 32 of the first 41 games in the series.

Hard to believe now that the Steelers have overtaken the Browns in the series and own a 62-56 lead, a 53-24 swing in favor of Pittsburgh since 1970. A seven-game winning streak by the Browns during the Marty Schottenheimer era prevented it from being even worse.

Which brings us to Sunday’s game. The Steelers have the edge in every statistical department in this one They generate 373 yards of offense a game, convert third downs at a 45.5% clip, hold the opposition to less than 17 first downs a game and yield just 274 yards on the average.

Now let’s look at the Browns, who have been marching in reverse on offense nearly the entire season, scoring as many as 20 points on just two occasions. Hmmm. Wonder what side of the ball they’ll address in the offseason.

Entering this game, they’re the second-lowest scoring team in the AFC and third-lowest in the NFL. They have scored just 21 touchdowns in 15 games, 20 on offense. At home, they have found the end zone an embarrassing seven times in seven games.

Last season, the Browns scored 271 points, This season, they’re on a pace to finish with 223 as they head toward the worst season on offense since 2000 when they scored just 161 points and were shut out four times. The 1999 expansion team scored 217 points.

Cleveland’s four victories this season (all against teams with losing records) have been by a total of 16 points. Five of the 11 losses have been by double digits. The defense doesn’t blow many leads because there haven’t been many leads to blow.

The only bright spot – and we’re reaching here – is the Browns’ 3-4 record at home despite their offensive ineptitude. On the road, they lost their last seven after knocking off Indianapolis in game two.

This will make the ninth season out of 13 since the rebirth in 1999 that the Browns will finish with a record of 5-11 or worse. Over the last four seasons, not counting Sunday’s game, they are 18-45, a winning percentage of .285. A litany of incompetence that causes one to wonder just why Browns fans keep coming back for more punishment season after season.

The Steelers unquestionably hold the edge in the talent department, coaching department and fan department in this one. Odds are that Steelers fans will outnumber Browns fans by a wide margin in a stadium that figures to be no more than half full by opening kickoff.

It’s a sad state of affairs that threatens to give rise to a pro team’s worst enemy: apathy. If there’s one thing the Browns fear, it’s that the fans might cease to care about this franchise. And it would be no one’s fault but their own.

OK, enough about doom and gloom.

Given all the dynamics, Sunday’s game should be a Pittsburgh blowout. Roethlisberger, despite playing at about 70%, is still a big threat as long as he can hobble out to the huddle. His defense, while showing signs of age, remains one of the best in the league.

However, this game could very well be a litmus test for the Browns as they try to convince Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. they deserve to be back next season. I look for them to play one of their best games of the season and give as much as they take.

But I’m not foolish enough to think they can surprise everyone and win. That’s not going to happen, but the Steelers will have to ratchet it up in a game they might think the Browns will mail in.

Look for the Browns to hang in for the better part of three quarters, sacking a relatively immobile Big Ben a number of times, before the Steelers wear them down and win with a late field goal. Make it:

Steelers 17, Browns 14

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