Friday, December 27, 2013

Don't let the facts get in the way

FACT: The last time the Browns defeated the Steelers in Pittsburgh, George W. Bush was in the middle of his first term as president, a gallon of gas cost $1.59 and LeBron was three weeks away from making his professional debut with the Cavaliers. The date was Oct. 5, 2003.

FACT: Ben Roethlisberger has quarterbacked the Steelers against the Browns 17 times and lost only once – in 2009 in Cleveland. He’s 8-0 at home against them.

FACT: In those eight games, he has completed nearly 66% of his passes (129-196), thrown for 1,932 yards and 14 touchdowns and been intercepted six times.

FACT: The Steelers are 25-5 against the Browns since the return.

FACT: The new Browns are 0-5 against the Steelers in season-ending games, 6-8 overall.

With facts like those, one doesn’t need to be closeted in a laboratory crunching numbers to figure out which team will win Sunday’s season-ender between the Browns and Steelers at Heinz Field.

These are two teams headed in opposite directions. The Steelers are clearly the better team at this point of the season. They are hopeful for more games. The Browns are hopeful no one gets hurt seriously as they conclude yet another dismal season.

The spin out of Berea is that the Browns could eliminate the Steelers from the playoff picture with an upset. That, too, is a fact. Like that would really mean something. A sort of pride thing that would spread some salve on the wound that is the 2013 season.

Uh, no. The only accomplishment at knocking off the Steelers would be beating all three division rivals in the same season for the first time since the return. That’s it. Nothing more.

There will be no thrill at pulling the plug on the Steelers’ season. That doesn’t even come close to making up for what has unfolded in the first 15 games. It’s not as though a victory Sunday will make the Browns’ season. It won’t.

It’s not as though the Steelers are this runaway juggernaut that will automatically make the postseason if they beat the Browns.  They have, at best, a sliver of hope to extend their season if they win. They also need Baltimore, Miami and San Diego to lose in order to qualify. The Dolphins and Chargers are at home.

The big question is whether the Browns will mail it in, much as some of them did last Sunday against the New York Jets (particularly on defense) or put in an honest effort.

Not certain if it’s just the usual pre-game hype elevating the capabilities of the upcoming opponent or just lip service to keep from laughing, but the Steelers appear to be taking the Browns seriously.

Roethlisberger anticipates a tough game. “I don’t expect anything less from them,” he said a few days ago. “It’s the AFC North. It’s Steelers-Browns. I don’t think much more needs to be said.” Presumably, he had a serious face when he spoke.

The Steelers have made a solid comeback from their 0-4 start. However, it might be too little, too late, which, of course, saddens Browns fans who will shed crocodile tears should Pittsburgh fail to make the postseason.

The Steelers have been on a statistical roll heading into this one, scoring 23 or more points in seven of their last eight games. The biggest problem this season is their inability to be dominant at home with just a 4-3 record there.

The Pittsburgh offense picked up when rookie running back Le’Veon Bell started getting comfortable in the running game, taking some of the pressure off his quarterback, who has racked up another 4,000-yard season

The biggest mystery for the Steelers is the performance of their defense, although it did shut down the Browns several weeks ago. A late touchdown pass from Brandon Weeden to Josh Gordon made the 27-11 final look a tad more respectable (being kind here).

That defense has surrendered more than 24 points a game, recorded just 31 sacks and given up 18 touchdowns on the ground. (They don’t have to worry about that Sunday. The Browns have no running game to speak of.)

Where the Browns will have difficulty stopping the Steelers is through the air. Unless the Browns’ vaunted pass rush magically reappears, something positive is bound to happen every time Roethlisberger drops back to pass.

In that first game, the Browns hardly touched him as the suspect Pittsburgh offensive line kept him clean. No sacks and just a couple of hits. That’s it. No reason to believe it will be any different Sunday.

Roethlisberger has too many good receivers to throw to; guys like Antonio Brown (quietly having a terrific season with 101 catches for 1,412 yards and eight touchdowns), Emmanuel Sanders (65-714-6) and Jericho Cotchery (43-577-9). The Cleveland secondary once again will see plenty of traffic.

All that remains, then, is the final score. This one is almost too easy. Too many overwhelming reasons to even think the Browns will be in this one, let alone win it. Make it:

Steelers 38, Browns 14

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