Though the Pittsburgh Steelers were knocked out of postseason contention in last week's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, that doesn't mean they have nothing to fight for in their season-ending meeting with the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers currently sit at 7-8 and need to pick up this win or they'll fall to below .500 on the season, which would be just the second time they've ended the year without a winning record since 2000 and fifth since 1991.
The Browns appear to be making it easy for the Steelers this week, with starting quarterback Brandon Weeden, his backup Colt McCoy, running back Trent Richardson and cornerback Sheldon Brown all set to sit out.
The Browns haven't had a good track record against the Steelers when the starting quarterback sits. Bruce Gradkowski was the starter the last time this happened and it resulted in a 31-0 Pittsburgh win.
The Steelers cannot take it for granted that Weeden, McCoy and Richardson aren't playing. One look at the teams they've lost to this season, as well as their clear predilection to play down to their opponents, suggests that the Browns are by no means an easy out on Sunday.
Think of the Steelers' first meeting with the Browns, in Week 12. Though starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still sidelined with rib and shoulder injuries, the fact that Charlie Batch was on the field as his replacement wasn't the only reason the Steelers ultimately lost 20-14. It was mainly due to eight total turnovers for Pittsburgh, only three of which were Batch interceptions. The Steelers let their guard down, the Browns defense took advantage of it and the result was a rare loss to Cleveland.
Obviously, ball security has been a major priority for the Steelers since that fateful loss, but they've still had a minimum of two turnovers per game since. Roethlisberger has been most at fault during that time, with his interceptions in their last two games leading directly to losses to the Cowboys and Bengals. No matter what personnel the Browns field on Sunday, if the Steelers continue to turning the ball over at that rate, things aren't likely to end well for Pittsburgh.
The Steelers aren't immune to the injury bug either. Starting wideout Mike Wallace will not play on Sunday, as he's dealing with hip and hamstring problems, marking the first game he misses in his NFL career. Though Pittsburgh's passing offense hasn't been as downfield-oriented as it was in previous seasons, his not being on the field means that coverage won't shift his direction, leaving Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery likely facing more double-coverage than usual.
Pittsburgh will also be without their top receiver and touchdowns co-leader, tight end Heath Miller, who tore his ACL and MCL last week, further depleting an offense that has been very much off its rhythm in recent weeks with a mostly healthy set of skill position players.
Considering their issues with offensive anemia and the Browns lacking two key starters, it will have to come down to defense. Last week against the Bengals, Pittsburgh's defense played their best game of the season, despite the eventual loss. Though the Steelers currently rank 17th in sacks, with 33, 29th in interceptions, with nine and 24th in forced fumbles, with 12, they sacked Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton six times, picked him off twice and had one forced fumble and recovery.
If they can have post similar numbers this week, especially with Browns' Thaddeus Lewis making his first career start, it should result in a Steelers win as long as they don't turn the ball over repeatedly themselves.
The Steelers defense still leads the league in yards per game allowed, at 272.9, and is 10th in points per game given up, at 20.3, while the Browns offense ranks 27th in yards, at 313.9 per game, and 23rd in points, at 19.5, even with Weeden under center and Richardson as their lead back.
On paper, this should result in a Steelers win if their defense can match what they have been averaging and the Browns dip some without their two most important offensive starters. The key, however, is forthe Steelers match this hypothetical production and not perform beneath it simply because they underestimate their opposition.
For a team like the Steelers, who have been near-constant playoff fixtures since Roethlisberger took over as starting quarterback, any season that doesn't result in a postseason berth feels like a failure. However, to miss the playoffs while also end the season with a sub-.500 record would be a rare and unwelcome development.
The Steelers cannot come into Sunday's game against the Browns flat and uninspired, even with Cleveland missing key starters. If their defense can approach this week as they did the Bengals last Sunday, a win is nearly guaranteed. If they don't, however, the Steelers may find themselves with a losing record after being swept by the Browns.