The Browns will end the year below .500 no matter what happens Sunday, but that doesn't mean they should lie down for the Steelers.
Their head coach, Pat Shurmur, appears to be on his way out as early as this coming Monday, and other members of the coaching staff and front office could also be following him out the door.
There's no guarantee that Brandon Weeden will be their starting quarterback next season, running back Trent Richardson is dealing with his third injury since August, and it seems like every inch of measurable progress they've made this season has been accompanied by a foot's worth of regression.
So what is left for them to fight for this Sunday?
Weeden won't be fighting for his job, and his backup, Colt McCoy, cannot even make an argument for getting his old job back, with both quarterbacks (as well as Richardson and cornerback Sheldon Brown) ruled out for the game with injury.
Instead, Thaddeus Lewis will get the start under center, his first of his career, with an auspicious statistic weighing over his head—the last time a non-starting quarterback got the nod for the Browns against the Steelers (Bruce Gradkowski), the Browns lost, 31-0, while Gradkowski ended the day with a quarterback rating of just 0.7.
What's at stake is far more morale-based than anything. A defeat of Pittsburgh this week means the Browns will have swept their oldest and biggest rivals, and though that would be cold comfort—they'd end their season at 6-10, with just two more wins than last year—it would be a measurable sign of improvement, even if it doesn't save Shurmur and others their jobs.
It will also give the Browns an opportunity to fight even when there's seemingly nothing left to fight for. Just as last week, when they took on the Denver Broncos with little chance to win, the Browns still cannot look at this game as one they are destined to lose.
For the Browns to take the next step as a cohesive unit, they need to avoid mentally checking out of this contest before it has even begun. With so many changes likely ahead, the Browns have to be a team and not just a collection of players.
Every single one of them playing this game as though it has more significance than it does will make them a tighter group next season when they may have a new system and new playbook from which to learn. That's important, especially for a franchise fraught with nearly ceaseless changes since coming back into the league in 1999.
Further, a win on Sunday provides them something worth building upon. It means they would have lost just two of their final six games and five of their last 11—certainly not terrible numbers if they hadn't opened the year 0-5.
Though the Browns will have to generate multiple turnovers to defeat the Ben Roethlisberger-led Steelers on Sunday—much as they did in Week 12, when they forced eight Steelers turnovers with Charlie Batch at the helm of Pittsburgh's offense—that's not an impossible feat. The Steelers haven't solved their turnover problems since that time, with Roethlisberger interceptions costing the team its last two games.
Further, the playoffs are now out of Pittsburgh's reach, possibly making the Steelers an uninspired opponent for the Browns this week. The Browns can absolutely capitalize on flat Steelers emotions, as well as on the fact that receiver Mike Wallace won't play, as he's sidelined with hip and hamstring problems.
Though the Browns have weaknesses of their own this week, if they can better capitalize on the holes in Pittsburgh's game, it could result with another, crucial check mark in the Browns' win column.
Should Cleveland's defense keep Pittsburgh's passing game at bay, control its run attack (which had just 95 yards on 31 rushes in last week's loss to the Bengals) and force turnovers, it has more than just a fighting or fleeting chance at victory.
If Montario Hardesty runs better than his Steelers counterparts and Lewis' mistakes can be held at a minimum, the Browns could end what has been a rather disappointing season on a positive note.