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Pregame stretch:
Steelers vs. Browns

November 21, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Pittsburgh Steelers (4-6) vs. Cleveland Browns (4-6)
Sunday, 1 p.m. EST, CBS

Announcers: Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcotts
Annoyance factor: Variable. Harlan is a pro’s pro and one of the best play-by-play men working. Wilcotts is a decent analyst and he’s worked hard to get to that point, because he was terrible for his first few years doing it. As always, we’ll get a few jabs in on Wilcotts’ inability to pronounce Roethlisberger (he says ROT-lisberger), but at least Mendinghall (another Solly-speak name) isn’t around anymore.
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Weather – or not?: Windy, cold, 40 percent chance of snow showers, high 20s. The first real winter weather of the season usually favors the defense and, in this instance, that favors the Browns.
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Referee: Terry McAulay
Competence factor: Solid. McAulay, a former Super Bowl white hat, and his crew did the Jets game earlier this year, calling 12 penalties for 109 yards. As an aside, the officiating statistics databased on appears to have been a casualty of the site redesign within the past week. As with most web redesigns, it took something that was useful and functional and turned it into dog’s breakfast. Anyway, no officiating stats there anymore.
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How they rank
Cleveland offense: 18th passing, 26th rushing
Pittsburgh defense: 8th passing , 29th rushing
Pittsburgh offense: 10th passing, 26th rushing
Cleveland defense: 4th passing, 8th rushing

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The line: Cleveland -2
Smarts say: When is the last time the Browns were favored over the Steelers? That’s not rhetorical. We want to know and we’ve been unable to find it anywhere. Some have suggested it might have been as long ago as the Browns’ heydays in the late ‘80s. The only time they’ve hit double digits in wins since then has been 1994 and 2007. The over/under of 41 means something like Cleveland 21-20.
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Key matchups:
Browns CB Joe Haden vs. Steelers WR Antonio Brown and Steelers LB/S vs. Browns tight end Jordan Cameron
Because: In what is looking like a blustery, defensive struggle, these look like the key matchups in deciding who will score the 20 points it likely will take to win. (As an aside, do you think there were enough conditional words in the last sentence?) Brown is mercurial, but there’s no denying he’s emerging as one of the top threats in the league. However, Haden is nails and has shut down some pretty good players already this year. We’re guessing Todd Haley will come up with a couple non-traditional ways to get the ball in Brown’s hands, and we’re wondering if we’re going to start seeing more WR screen fakes, like the one that freed up Jericho Cotchery for the clinching score last week. On the flip side, Cameron will be a tall order for the Steelers, who will have to pay more attention to limiting Josh Gordon. That usually would leave Troy Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons spending some time with Cameron, but we’re wondering if we won’t see Pittsburgh’s quarter package with Will Allen matched up with the Browns TE.

Long snap:
The air and airwaves have been filled this week with Steelers playoff talk, which is hard to believe, considering where this team was in Week 4. But, as we’ve noted several times, Pittsburgh’s re-emergence in the playoff picture is one part playing better and one part just about everyone else playing worse.
Let’s start here: The Steelers are still long shots to make the playoffs. Before the Lions game, they had about a 4 percent chance and after the improbable win that rose to about 10 percent. That means if they played EVERY NFL GAME left in the season 100 times, Pittsburgh would make the playoffs 10 of those times. When they were 0-4, they had a playoff probability of about 5 percent. The season low-point was a 0.4% percent chance after losing to the Patriots to go to 2-6. So while it’s very easy to sit down and come up with a scenario where the Steelers get in, the actual chance of every single thing that needs to happen in that scenario actually happening is still very, very slim.
Five of the Steelers remaining game are with teams in the AFC playoff hunt (CLE x 2, BAL, CIN, MIA) so those games will be especially critical for tiebreaker purposes. Another thing to remember about the tiebreakers this year is that the head-to-head matchups likely won’t have a lot of impact because we’re heading for a situation where three or maybe even four teams are going to end up tied for the #6 seed and the head-to-head tiebreaker almost always ends up getting tossed out in multi-team ties. The most critical tiebreaker to watch down the stretch is conference record among the hopefuls. Right now among the eight teams vying for the final spot, the Jets and Dolphins are the only ones with 4-3 AFC records while the Chargers are in big trouble at 2-5. The Steelers are one of four teams with 3-4 conference marks.
All of this talk is parallel to another discussion: Should the Steelers make the playoffs? Some will note that Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl in 2006 from the #6 position, but no one would dare compare the talent level of that team to this motley crew. So while the competitive instinct in the team (and in all of us) absolutely wants to get in the postseason, the reality is that’s probably hurtful to the team in the long term. Two weeks ago, Pittsburgh was looking at selecting as high as fourth in the 2014 Draft. Right now, they’d be picking as low as 11th. Finish at 8-8 and they’d probably pick around 15th.

Quick hits:
+ Here’s our only comment this week on the ongoing NFL Network reporting on Ben Roethlisberger: After some more grousing online between NFLN reporter Ian Rapoport and some other media types about the credibility of his anonymous sourcing, Rapoport tweeted that he actually had FIVE, count ‘em, FIVE anonymous sources. If true, that information should have been included in his initial story, not tweeted two weeks later.
+ Just a reminder to keep an eye on in-game injuries this week for both the Steelers and Ravens. With a Thursday night game looming, it becomes very unlikely that anyone who suffers a significant injury of any kind will be able to be ready Thanksgiving night on short rest.

The pick: Here we go again. We can’t see any way the Steelers win this game. The Browns defense is borderline dominant and the Steelers defense is borderline embarrassing. But we didn’t see any way the Steelers would win the past two weeks and they pulled that off. What’s interesting is that they did some of that on their own but got a lot of cooperation from the opposing quarterbacks (E.J. Manuel and Matthew “Calvin Who?” Stafford) along the way. Could Jason Campbell be lined up as #3? A three-INT day would certainly help Pittsburgh’s cause. But we can’t predict that. We’re seeing a blustery, knock-down dragout battle of field goals decided by a late Steelers turnover ... Browns 16-13.
Last week: Just like the thousands who left Heinz Field at halftime last week, we already had our Lions prediction chalked up as a double win before that unlikely second half left us at 4-6 straight up and 5-5 against the spread.

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