Technically, it’s not a must-win game for the Cleveland Browns on Sunday when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular-season finale.
The Browns (10-5) can still slink into the playoffs with a loss, provided the right combination of other teams lose and/or win. But Cleveland isn’t viewing another showdown with the Steelers (12-3) in such a light.
“We’ve got to come ready to play like it’s a playoff game,” said Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt.
With a win, Cleveland is in. Pittsburgh already knows it will be the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the postseason, which led to Mike Tomlin declaring this week that Ben Roethlisberger will get the week off. Backup Mason Rudolph will get his first start of the year.
The move adds more intrigue to the matchup. Last year, Cleveland broke a five-year non-winning streak against Pittsburgh in Cleveland with a 21-7 victory on Nov. 14, 2019. But in the closing moments, defensive end Myles Garret ripped off Rudolph’s helmet and swung it at the quarterback to spark an on-field brawl.
The incident led Garrett to be suspended for the final six games of last season. Garrett, who had 10 sacks through 10 games last season before the suspension, has 44 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 12 sacks this year.
Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski isn’t concerned about that subplot. Rudolph, who has just four passing attempts and 20 offensive snaps all season, had seven plays on the field during Pittsburgh’s 38-7 rout of the Browns in Week 6 this season.
“We talk about maintaining our composure in every single game, it’s nothing new this week,” Stefanski said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re keeping the main thing (in mind) and focusing on our work.”
Tomlin said the Garrett/Rudolph issue is a non-starter for him.
“That is so far in our rearview mirror that we can’t see it,” he said.
Cleveland has more pressing issues to address. The team temporarily closed its facility again on Wednesday following more positive COVID-19 tests within the organization.
On Tuesday, the team put tight end Harrison Bryant and safeties Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Last Sunday, in a 23-16 loss to the New York Jets, the Browns played without their top four wide receivers, who were forced to sit out of the game because of contact tracing. The Browns are hopeful the receiving corps, including leader Jarvis Landry (789 yards), will be able to return against the Steelers.
Stefanski said Wednesday that rookie offensive tackle Jedrick Wills would return this week from a non-COVID-related illness, but the Browns weren’t sure when he will practice. Starting right guard Wyatt Teller (ankle) was also expected to be available after missing the last two games.
“We have to do everything in our power to win this week,” Stefanski said.
Pittsburgh rallied from a 17-point deficit last week to beat the Indianapolis Colts and lock up a playoff spot. The win snapped a three-game losing skid.
Pittsburgh secures the No. 2 seed with a win and a loss or tie by the Bills (12-3) against the Dolphins (10-5), but without a bye within reach, Tomlin said his team might benefit more by resting key players. He hasn’t said who, beyond Roethlisberger, will sit or for how long, but vowed the Steelers will play to win.
If the Bills and Steelers finish with identical records, Buffalo would receive the higher seed since the Bills defeated the Steelers, 26-15, on Dec. 13.
“The standard is the standard,” Tomlin said. “Our job is to win football games.”
–Field Level Media