The Cleveland Browns hardly had time to celebrate being back on the playoff stage after an 18-year wait before finding out they’d be doing so without their head coach and top offensive lineman due to COVID-19.
But that doesn’t erase the fact that the Browns have finally shed the label of league laughingstock and are playing in the postseason for the first time since 2002. Cleveland’s 11-5 record is the franchise’s best mark since 1994, which was also the last time they won a playoff game.
The Browns’ opponent this week is the same as it was in the 2002 playoff game: The Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers (12-4) are returning to the postseason after a two-year hiatus. As the AFC’s No. 3 seed, the AFC North champions get to face their sixth-seeded division rivals at the friendly confines of Heinz Field, where they haven’t lost to the Browns since 2003.
TV: 8:15 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC, Telemundo and Peacock. The game can also be live-streamed on fuboTV.
BetMGM.com line: Steelers by 5.5; over/under 47.5.
Browns’ keys: Cleveland must continue to establish the run with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the best bet to try to keep the pressure off QB Baker Mayfield in his first playoff start. Without using their best two pass rushers, the Steelers sacked Mayfield four times in Week 17 in Cleveland. Defensively, the Browns struggled to slow down backup QB Mason Rudolph in that game, so they will have their work cut out for them against starter Ben Roethlisberger.
Steelers’ keys: Pittsburgh gets the Browns at home with its full complement of players after resting its starters in Week 17. The Steelers offense dominated the Browns in Week 6. They needs to use all of their weapons in the passing game such as WR Chase Claypool and TE Eric Ebron to open up the run game for RB James Conner, who topped 100 yards in the first matchup. On defense, the Steelers should pour the pressure on Mayfield and bottle up the Browns running game, as it did in Week 6. During the regular season, no team rushed the quarterback better than Pittsburgh, so look for the Steelers to cut loose.
Matchup to watch: Steelers LB T.J. Watt vs. Browns QB Mayfield. The Steelers were able to get pressure on Mayfield last weekend without Watt. Mayfield also took advantage of the pressure at times when they couldn’t finish the rush. This won’t be an issue for Watt.