Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Wild-Card Playoff Preview
A preview of the NFL wild-card matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers.
By Stone Lexington
Updated: Jan. 9, 2021 • 3:10 PM ET
Baker Mayfield will seek his first playoff win against the Steelers.
In their third meeting this season, the Cleveland Browns will face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs. Which team will have the edge?
With a 24-22 win over the Steelers in Week 17, the Cleveland Browns clinched their first playoff berth since 2002, ending the longest drought in the NFL. And in his first season as head coach, Kevin Stefanski has led the Browns to a place many thought was unreachable.
It wasn’t easy for the Browns to get here. They entered the final week of the season having lost two of their previous three games, including a very disappointing loss to the woeful New York Jets in Week 16. The Browns needed a victory against Pittsburgh, which was without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, in Week 17 to clinch that long-awaited playoff berth. And despite Browns fans chewing off every nail in the final minutes, Cleveland held on at home in front of jubilant fans.
Reaching the playoffs may be validation for Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who threw for 3,563 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season, so much so that Cleveland will likely pick up his fifth-year option. Mayfield, however isn’t the only Brown that played well this season.
Despite missing four games, Browns running back Nick Chubb rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season. Backfield mate Kareem Hunt rushed for more than 800 yards and added 11 total touchdowns, but without Odell Beckham Jr., who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 7, the Browns’ receiving core could be their biggest question mark.
Cleveland didn’t produce a 1,000-yard receiver this season, as Jarvis Landry led the team with 840 yards and three receiving touchdowns. Rashard Higgins, who has filled in for Beckham, caught 37 balls for 599 yards and four touchdowns. Other receiving threats in the mix for Cleveland are tight end Austin Hooper (435 yards) and rookie receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (304 yards).
The Browns have gotten healthier as the season has wound down, but they’ll be without star cornerback Denzel Ward, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, this weekend. Defensive end Olivier Vernon is also out for the playoffs after being carted off with an injury against the Steelers.
In what could also be a crushing blow for their hopes of winning, Stefanski will be unavailable for Sunday’s playoff game after testing positive for COVID-19. Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio, the Browns’ longest tenured player, and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge will also be unavailable after testing positive. Encouraging news for the Browns is that linebacker B.J. Goodson has been activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list.
If the Browns have any hopes of beating the Steelers in the playoffs, they need to play much better than they played against Pittsburgh in Week 6 (lost 38-7) and better than that two-point win over the Mason Rudolph-led Steelers in the final week.
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After the Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens in Week 12 to move to 11-0, talks arose of them possibly finishing the regular season with a 16-0 record. Then, after three straight losses in the following three weeks, the possibility of Pittsburgh losing their final five games was firmly on the table. It looked like that might come to fruition, but the Steelers rallied from a 24-7 second half deficit to defeat the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16 to clinch the AFC North title and their first playoff berth since 2017.
Although Pittsburgh will enter the playoffs going 1-4 down the stretch, the Steelers will face a favorable foe. Since 2000, Pittsburgh is 35-7-1 against Cleveland, emphasizing one of the most lopsided rivalries in NFL history. And in five of those seven losses, Roethlisberger was not the quarterback. Barring anything unforeseen, Roethlisberger will be on the field when the Steelers host the Browns during the upcoming weekend.
Although he has reached the ripe age of 38, Roethlisberger played well this season, nearly reaching 4,000 yards passing and throwing for 33 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He did this with a lackluster running game, as James Conner led the team with 721 yards and six touchdowns. No other Steelers running back reached 400 yards rushing this season.
Pittsburgh’s receiving core picked up the slack, as four players had more than 500 yards receiving, led by Diontae Johnson’s 923 yards and seven touchdowns. Stud rookie receiver Chase Claypool produced 873 receiving yards with 11 total touchdowns, while JuJu Smith-Schuster refrained from dancing on team logos long enough to haul in 97 catches for 831 yards and nine touchdowns. Eric Ebron has been a solid tight end this season, totaling 558 yards with five touchdowns.
Defensively is where the Steelers have a few glaring issues. The defense has not been the same since losing pass rushing extraordinaire Bud Dupree for the season in Week 12, that injury coming after the team lost starting linebacker Devin Bush for the year earlier in the season. After not allowing an opponent to reach 20 points from Weeks 9 through 12, the Steelers did not hold an opponent under 20 points after the Dupree injury.
It doesn’t help that backup linebacker Robert Spillane, who filled in admirably for Bush, has been out with a knee injury since Pittsburgh’s Week 13 loss to the Washington Football Team. Nevertheless, the Browns were only able to beat the Steelers by two points in Week 17, a team that was without Roethlisberger, Spillane, Ebron, Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds, Cameron Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and T.J. Watt.
With all or most of those players likely returning for the playoff game, Cleveland will have its hands full with a likely favored Steelers team.
While the Browns have played their best football in more than a decade, it is a young team that is getting its first taste of the postseason. Many of the Steelers players, not to mention their still underrated head coach, have been here before. The Browns’ lethal running game could find success against Pittsburgh’s defense, but Mayfield will have to show why he was a No. 1 overall pick. A key factor could be Browns kicker Cody Parkey, who has been extremely shaky down the stretch of the season.
Pittsburgh 27, Browns 24