NFL Playoff Preview: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers

Let’s preview the debauchery of an absolutely delicious AFC North rivalry game for the 2020-2021 NFL Playoffs between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers. This Wild Card game will take place on Sunday, January 10 at 8:15 PM ET on NBC.

Browns/Steelers Playoff Preview: Cleveland actually makes the playoffs!

Good news, Cleveland Browns — you reached the playoffs for the first time since 2002! Bad news, Cleveland Browns — you must face the Pittsburgh Steelers for the second time in two weeks and the third time this season! And unlike in Sunday’s 24-22 Browns victory, the Steelers are likely to have Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, and other starters in the lineup. The Browns looked better — and the Steelers quite a bit worse — than they looked in the 38-7 Steelers rout in Week 6. But NFL Recap doesn’t think the Browns have quite closed the gap.

Pittsburgh Steelers’ season in a nutshell

The Steelers started the season 11-0, and their fans were like, “Why aren’t we getting as much respect as the Kansas City Chiefs?” and the rest of us were like, “It’s because you’re facing a bunch of quarterbacks named Jake Luton and Ben Roethlisberger is washed.”

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Then the Steelers lost three straight to Washington, the Buffalo Bills, and the Cincinnati Bengals. Then they fell behind the Indianapolis Colts 21-7 at halftime, and their fans were like, “OMG, what is happening?” and the rest of us were like, “LOL, told you so.”

The Steelers came back to beat the Colts, so now their fans are like, “See, Big Ben can still deliver when it counts, and our defense will get the job done,” while the rest of us are like, “Big Ben was given a rest week with playoff seedings on the line in Week 17. That doesn’t sound like someone who is quite as ready to deliver when it matters as you hope he is.”

Cleveland Browns’ season in a nutshell

On the one hand, it wasn’t that impressive — the Browns rode solid offensive line play, a balanced play-action heavy attack, a less erratic Baker Mayfield, a nasty Myles Garrett-led pass rush, and one of the NFL’s easiest schedules to a Wild Card berth.

But on the other hand, it was incredibly impressive. Rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski got one of the league’s most histrionic locker rooms to simmer down and play as a team, Mayfield showed broad-based improvement and the Browns pulled off a few upsets and persevered through some terrible weather games to enjoy what may have been their best season since the days of Bernie Kosar and the Dawg Pound.

Playoff Preview: Cleveland Browns’ greatest strength

Browns’ passers (mostly Mayfield) entered Week 17 ranked third in the NFL with 9.6 yards per attempt on play-action passes and third to the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers with an efficiency rating on play-action of 122.1. Play-action, the Nick Chubb/Kareem Hunt two-headed backfield, and an offensive line led by Jack Conklin, Wyatt Teller, and Joel Bitonio can all do their part to keep the Browns on schedule and slow the Steelers pass rush.

Playoff Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers’ greatest strength

Through Week 16, the Steelers’ defense led the NFL with 325 pass pressures; no other team had more than 300. T.J. Watt led the NFL with 77 pressures. No other defender had more than 65. 

Pittsburgh Steelers’ biggest weakness

Ben Roethlisberger’s completion rate on passes of 15-plus air yards of 37.1% was 8th-worst in the NFL among quarterbacks with 25 or more such attempts, wedged just between Mitchell Trubisky and Andy Dalton. That may make it hard for them to exploit the …

Cleveland Browns’ biggest weakness

The Browns are vulnerable to deep passes — they entered Week 17 allowing 14 touchdowns on throws of 15-plus air yards, tying the Cowboys for the worst figure in the league.

The Browns have also suffered more than their share of special teams miscues, including several missed extra points and chip shots from kicker Cody Parkey.

Bottom Line

It’s just hard to envision the Browns beating the Steelers in the playoffs, isn’t it? For it to happen, Stefanski must call an almost perfect game on offense, Mayfield must play mistake-free football, and Roethlisberger will have to look as rickety, if not worse, as he appeared to be in mid-December.

All of those things are possible, but all three of them happening at the same time is not likely, especially for an inexperienced playoff team on the road facing a roster full of players and coaches that are used to playing in January.

Early Pick: Steelers win

(All stats via Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise cited)


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