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Browns-Steelers pregame stretch

December 8, 2011 - Ray Eckenrode

Cleveland at Pittsburgh

8:20 p.m. Thursday, NFL

Announcers: Brad Nessler and Mike Mayock

Annoyance factor: Nessler is a smooth, slick pro. He’s Nantz before Nantz became an ego-bloated caricature of himself. Some analysts understand schemes best, some understand talent and technique best and some understand motivation and emotion best. The best do all three. Mayock is the best going right now at the first two but needs to get better at framing his almost computerlike analysis of the game in a human context. Still, it will be fun to hear him doing a Steelers game.

Referee: Jerome Boger .. or Ed Hochuli

Competence factor: The NFL doesn't officially announce each week's referees so it's left to fans/media/insiders to piece together assignments and that's a little more difficult to do for the Thursday games. It originally appeared Jerome Boger would be on this game, but by late afternoon Thursday other sources indicated it would be Ed Hochuli. So, for once, we'll wait and see, and be surprised like the other 99.9 percent of viewers.

The line: Pittsburgh -14

Smarts say: This looks like the sucker line of the century to us. The Browns can’t run the ball, they can’t pass the ball, they can’t stop the run and they can’t beat the Steelers (having lost 20 of the past 22). That sounds like a sure thing and that is a big red flag in the NFL as it would be extremely rare to see a team (not named the Packers) win back-to-back games in blowout fashion. The over/under of 38.5 indicates something in the range of 27-13 Steelers. You can check out the Las Vegas Hilton Supercontest picks (link at right) on Saturday afternoon (picks are submitted before Thursday game but not posted until Saturday) to see how the professional bettors saw this one.

Key matchup: Browns DE Jabaal Sheard vs. Steelers RT Marcus Gilbert

Because: When the Browns shocked the Steelers in 2009, they sacked Ben Roethlisberger nine times. If they’re going to do it again Thursday, they’ll need a similar pass rush and that points to Sheard, the rookie from Pitt who leads Cleveland with 5.5 sacks. But the Steelers have a pretty good rookie of their own in Gilbert and if he can keep Sheard at bay it could be a long night for the Browns.

Quick hits:

+ Although the short week on the front end is no treat for their beat-up bodies, if the Steelers can manage a win tonight they’ll get what amount to an 11-day mini bye before playing again against the 49ers on Monday, Dec. 19th in San Francisco. We say “if they can manage a win” because we’re sure the amount of time Mike Tomlin gives the team off will depend on that. Should the Steelers lose tonight, we’re guessing those 11 days will be l-o-n-g ones.

+ The Steelers actually have several playoff-clinching scenarios this week. All, of course, include a Pittsburgh win plus losses by the following: CIN/JETS/TENN or CIN/NYJ/DEN/OAK or CIN/TENN/DEN/OAK.

+ The news that Chris Hoke’s neck injury (stinger-like symptoms in Tomlinspeak) will end his season, and possibly his career, is not crushing in the short term with Casey Hamptom healthy (knock wood) and Steve McLendon playing his best football in black and gold, but it certainly moves nose tackle way up on Pittsburgh’s draft priority list for 2012.

The pick: You know we are never one to take any opponent lightly in the NFL, but the reality is that the Browns aren’t going to win this game unless they get a lot of help from the Steelers in doing it. In Cleveland, they’re already talking about Colt McCoy, who was just drafted last year, needing to beat the Steelers once down the stretch to keep his job. Even if that’s not exactly true, it’s clear there’s a lot of pressure on McCoy and not a lot of talent around him. The Browns have looked a bit better with Peyton Hillis (somewhat) in the lineup and if he’s healthy enough to get 15 carries Thursday we think Cleveland can keep this one close… Pittsburgh 23-14.

Last week: We liked the Steelers to win but the Bengals to cover last week and the split leaves us at 8-4 straight up and 7-5 vs. the spread.

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