Another Steelers drubbing?
If there is one team the Browns do not want to face in the last game of the regular season – any regular season, for that matter – it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Heading into Sunday’s 2015 season finale at home against, yep, the Steelers once again, the Browns are 6-10 in season-ending games since returning to the National Football League in 1999. Half of those losses were to the Steelers.
The Browns, who ran off four straight season-ending victories from 2002 through 2005, have met the Steelers five times in final games and are looking for their first victory. In that five-game span, their archrivals have outscored them, 129-35.
Ben Roethlisberger, who seems to play like Superman against the Browns, quarterbacked every one of those games. If his 19-2 career record against Cleveland isn’t the best in NFL history for a quarterback against one club, it’s awfully close.
It might not be a bad idea for the Browns this offseason to drop a memo into the lap of the NFL’s schedule maker strongly suggesting that in the interest of fairness, he should consider ending Cleveland’s 2016 season – and several seasons beyond – against any club but Pittsburgh.
Until, that is, the losing culture that currently exists on the North Shore disappears and winning football returns. In that case, it really makes no difference who the opponent is in game 16.
In the first 16-plus seasons since the resurrection, the Steelers are 28-6 against Cleveland and have swept the season series 10 times in a rivalry that stopped being a rivalry more than a generation ago.
This season is no different. The Steelers battered the Browns, 30-9, in their first meeting in Pittsburgh on Nov. 15 with Roethlisberger coming off the bench to throw for 379 yards and three touchdowns. He was on the bench at the beginning of the game with a sore foot, but starter Landry Jones was injured on the first series.
In that game, Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel turned in his best game as a pro, completing 33 of 45 passes for 372 yards, but connected on only one touchdown pass. He won’t get a second chance against the Steelers, He has been ruled out with a concussion.
Austin Davis gets the call. His mediocre performance against Cincinnati on Dec. 6 during Manziel’s two-week banishment to the third string due to off-the-field misbehavior warranted a return to the bench.
Entering the finale, the Browns, as usual, are the caboose in the AFC North, while the Steelers, who lost last Sunday in Baltimore, still have a chance, albeit slim, to make the playoffs. It would take a combination of events too complicated to go into here for that to happen. (Update: The Steelers are in if they win and the New York Jets lose in Buffalo.)
Suffice it to say, the Steelers are motivated with that possibility while the Browns are just playing out the string. It is also possible Mike Pettine will be coaching his last game as the boss in Cleveland. The club is just 10-21 since he took over.
The Steelers’ strengths play well against the Browns’ weaknesses. They run the ball very well with DeAngelo Williams more than capably filling in for the injured Le’Veon Bell. The Browns can’t stop the run. Last again in that department this season.
Steelers wide receivers create fits for an injury-riddled Cleveland secondary. In Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh owns arguably the best trio of wideouts in the AFC, if not the entire NFL.
Brown enters the game with a remarkable 123 catches for 1,647 yards and nine touchdowns. If he catches 14 passes Sunday, he will move into a tie for first place with Marvin Harrison for most catches in one season in league history. As it is, only seven more will move him into second place.
It is entirely possible a Roethlisberger-Brown feast will be heavily featured Sunday. In the first meeting of the season, they connected 10 times for 139 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Bryant chipped in with six grabs for 178 yards and a score.
With Davis running the Cleveland offense, count on the Steelers to ramp up their blitz packages. Unlike Manziel, he can be found in the pocket just about all the time. Even Manziel had a tough time escaping the Pittsburgh pass rush, which dropped him five times in the first game.
Right now, the Browns are a team that can’t wait for the season to end. They aren’t exactly mailing it in, which is to Pettine’s credit, but the sooner they can put the 2015 season into the record books and move on, the better.
In a season where losing begat losing, where they played in fits and starts, where the opportunity to compete for postseason action never materialized, where remembrances of the 1999 expansion season reentered our thoughts, the 2015 team ranks right up there as one of the most forgettable.
And now that the season is about to become history, all that is left is one more game. One more 60-minute test. One more chance to get one right and go out with a semblance of pride. Something positive to take into the 2016 campaign.
But then you stop and realize these are the Pittsburgh Steelers and they play the game of football on a much different – and higher – plane than the Browns.
So you can talk all your on-any-given-Sunday NFL rhetoric, but when the Browns and Steelers meet in the last game of a season in the early part of the 21st century, there is only one conclusion that can be reached.
Once again, Roethlisberger rides herd with receiving buddies Brown, Bryant & Wheaton (sounds like a law firm, thus the ampersand) and the Pittsburgh defense nearly pitches a shutout against a Cleveland attack missing its linchpin. It won’t be as bad as the 30-9 drubbing back in November. But it will be nasty. Make it:
Steelers 28, Browns 5