The city of Cleveland has the LeBron Championship in 2016, but nothing would mean more to the city than a Super Bowl win for the Cleveland Browns. As luck would have it, the first playoff berth in 18 years has been marred by a COVID-19 outbreak that has head coach Kevin Stefanski at home on Sunday and has impacted the lineup the last three weeks.
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost by two points to the Browns in Week 17 with a “B” team that was missing Ben Roethlisberger, TJ Watt, Cameron Heyward, and other important personnel. Now the Steelers, who were a 10-point underdog in that game, are a six-point favorite at Bookmaker Sportsbook for the Wild Card Weekend game. The total sits at 47.5, but you really have to wonder about that number with Cleveland’s play caller in Stefanski absent from the game.
We’ll see what happens with the line as kickoff approaches, but we’ll break down what we can for now.
The Browns haven’t practiced all week in advance of their biggest game in 18 years. Baker Mayfield hasn’t thrown a pass to any of his receivers. The Browns facility has remained closed in an abundance of caution as the team sits on pins and needles daily to see if any new positive tests come across.
Players from different position groups will be out, including safety Ronnie Harrison and offensive lineman Joel Bitonio. Olivier Vernon suffered an Achilles injury that has taken him out of action and Myles Garrett is still dealing with the after effects of his bout with COVID earlier in the season.
There aren’t a lot of compelling reasons to believe in the Browns. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will call plays and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will be the acting head coach so Van Pelt and defensive coordinator Joe Woods can handle their respective duties.
There were already a lot of questions surrounding the Browns anyway, as they did take advantage of a weak schedule to go 11-5 and get in this position. They were blown out by a Steelers team that was trying and narrowly lost to a Steelers team that was sort of trying.
The efficiency of the Browns offense with a balanced attack has been a storyline throughout the year. Also a storyline is the porous Browns defense. The Browns rank 13th in yards per play, but also ranked 28th in pass attempts and it is much easier to get yards through the air than on the ground.
Cleveland ranks 13th in yards per play on defense, but that is more of a byproduct of the schedule than anything else. It is fair to say that the Browns haven’t been able to play together with all of their top players very often this season, but the depth leaves a lot to be desired.
The fortunate thing for the Browns here is that the Steelers offense is bad. Pittsburgh ranks 18th in adjusted net yards per pass attempt and dead last in yards per carry. This is a group that has been held back in the second half of the season by Ben Roethlisberger’s declining arm talent. Even with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool, the passing attack is average at best and below average for the most part.
It has been the defense that has created offense. The Steelers have 27 takeaways and one of the league’s top sack rates. Opponents have only scored on 29.3% of their possessions against the defense. Only the Saints, Ravens, Seahawks, and Bucs have a better starting average field position than the Steelers, yet Pittsburgh ranks 18th in points per drive on offense.
Pittsburgh’s offensive profile is such that laying big numbers with them is quite scary. This is a team that had six wins of a touchdown or more, but all of those came before December. This is not a team that played well down the stretch, losing four of its last five. They played and won a lot of close games in the middle of the season to get out to an 11-0 start, but that has faded of late.
Frankly, had the Steelers not come back from a big deficit to beat the Colts in Week 16, things would look especially different at 11-5 and with the Browns possibly as the AFC North champs hosting this game instead of Pittsburgh.
Pick & Analysis
The honest truth is that fading both of these teams makes sense. The Browns have a lot going on with COVID and the Steelers have a lot going on in that they’ve been exposed as not really being as good as their record would suggest. The winner of this game is a prime fade candidate next week.
Speculators laid early-week prices on Pittsburgh as COVID news was breaking to take this line from 3.5 or 4 up to 6 or 6.5. With no new cases for the Browns, this line will come back down, so if you like Cleveland, speculating now isn’t a bad idea.
I’ll look at the under for the official pick in this article. The Steelers defense has faltered slightly in recent weeks, but the Browns won’t have their play caller. The Steelers offense is poor, even against a suspect Browns defense.
There is a lot of familiarity here and the Steelers have the pressure not to lose. The Browns aren’t likely to do anything crazy themselves.