Winless season in the bag
It really makes no difference who plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they entertain the Browns in the season finale (for Cleveland) Sunday.
(Spoiler alert) The Steelers will win and put a bow on the first winless season in Browns history.
They will continue their amazing dominance against Cleveland since 1999. Whether it’s Ben Roethlisberger or Landry Jones at quarterback, Le’Veon Bell or Stevan Ridley at running back or whomever else Mike Tomlin chooses to sit, the Steelers are by far the better team.
The two former bitter rivals have met 38 times since the resurrection in 1999, the Steelers holding a 32-6 edge. Makes no difference where they play. The Steelers dominate. Four of those Cleveland victories were at home. They have lost the last 14 in a row in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers coach is in a bit of a quandary. His club has clinched a first-round bye, but is in a unique position to possibly gain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they beat the Browns and the New England Patriots somehow lose to the New York Jets.
Both teams are 12-3, but the Patriots hold the tiebreaker, having defeated the Steelers a couple of weeks ago.
Early word out of Pittsburgh indicates Roethlisberger and Bell might not suit up and Brown, who suffered a calf injury in the Patriots game, is being held out as a precaution until the playoffs.
Tomlin also might hold out certain other key performers on both sides of the football, as he did in last year’s game, in an effort to be as healthy as possible once the postseason commences.
Exactly one year ago, the situation was identical. The Steelers had clinched the playoffs and Tomlin did not want to risk injury to his big three on offense entering the postseason.
A year ago, though, the Browns were coming off their first (and still only) victory under Hue Jackson after losing the first 14 games. They have embarrassingly trumped that this season.
The Steelers spotted the Browns an early 14-0 lead last year before storming back to win, 27-24, in overtime with Jones, making only his third career start, tossing three touchdown passes in the comeback.
Jones, in his fifth season as Roethlisberger’s backup, threw his first pass of the season against Houston last Monday. It was incomplete.
Roethlisberger, now 35, has had his typical great season, completing more than 64% of his passes for 4,250 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He has been absolute death on the Browns throughout his 14-year career.
He is 22-2 against them with winning streaks of 10 and eight games and currently working on a four-gamer. He has connected on nearly 63% of his passes for more than 5,700 yards, 37 touchdowns and 18 picks against them and is easily the most hated quarterback in Browns Nation.
Bell is having another All-Pro season. He has compiled nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage (1,291 on the ground), is the second-leading pass receiver on the club with 85 receptions for 655 yards and leads the team with 11 touchdowns, nine on the ground.
Stevan Ridley, signed by the Steelers a week ago, and Fitzgerald Toussaint, figure to see most of the carries if Bell is held out. Third-year fullback Roosevelt Nix from Kent State has touched the ball just twice this season and scored both times.
With Brown idle, expect either Big Ben or Jones to target rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter and tight end Jesse James.
The Browns’ offense will face the second-best pass rush in the NFL. The Steelers, who dropped DeShone Kizer seven times and hit him at least a dozen more times on 40-plus dropbacks in his pro debut in the season-opening 21-18 victory, have rung up 50 sacks.
Former Ohio State standout defensive end Cameron Heyward leads the way with a dozen and the linebacking trio of Vince Williams, rookie T. J. Watt and Bud Dupree has combined for 19 more.
The very active Pittsburgh secondary, which just got ex-Brown Joe Haden back from a broken leg, has swiped 15 passes this season and will be going against the NFL leader in interceptions with 21. Look for Haden to hook up with Josh Gordon in the most entertaining matchup of the day.
So you see it really doesn’t make any difference who wears the Black and Gold Sunday. The Steelers roster is better than the Browns’ at all levels if play.
The Browns’ defense, easily the strongest side of the football all season, might hang in there for a quarter or two, but it will be the impotent offense, which has slammed it in reverse the last half dozen games, averaging 11 points, that will guarantee making the wrong kind of history.
It will extend the list of losing streaks to 17 overall, 33 in a row on Sunday, 17 in a row in the AFC North and be the 49th setback in the last 53 games.
If it’s Ben and Bell, it will be a relative blowout even if Tomlin decides to give certain other members of both units the afternoon off. If those two watch the game in civvies, it will be somewhat closer, but the end result will not change. Make it:
Steelers 34, Browns 6 (with Ben and Bell); Steelers 20, Browns 6 (without)