Forget the 3-12 record. Forget the porous defense, the quarterback carousel and the fact that coaching or front office changes could be coming as soon as Monday: The Cleveland Browns are in the position to spoil the playoff hopes of longtime rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. And that should be a major motivating factor when the team prepares for their final regular-season game of the season.
The Steelers are currently the seventh seed in the AFC's playoff race, having lost hold of the conference's final wild-card spot with their surprising loss to the four-win Baltimore Ravens in Week 16. And a loss against the Browns would knock them out for good.
While the Steelers have one of the NFL's most explosive offenses and a defense that is more than capable of wreaking havoc against quarterbacks, the road has not been a kind place for them this season. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown just two touchdowns to seven interceptions when on the road in 2015, and that should be the first step the Browns take to ruining Pittsburgh's playoff hopes.
There's not much left for the Browns to fight for, given their record. But they can earn themselves some bragging rights by not allowing the Steelers to reach the postseason. Such was the case last week, when the Ravens brought down Pittsburgh, 20-17, and if the Browns bring the same intensity to the matchup this week, anything is possible.
The Steelers have long been known for underestimating seemingly inferior opponents. Though the Browns have struggled themselves against teams with eight or more wins as of late and have not won against one since 2003, that should not be in the Browns' minds this week.
Browns have lost 23 straight against teams with at least 8 wins. Last win over 8+ win team was Bengals in 2003.— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) December 27, 2015
Instead, the focus should be on the fact that the Steelers have lost seven of their last 11 meetings with teams posting sub-.500 records.
Steelers have lost 7 of last 11 games against sub-.500 teams— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) December 27, 2015
This propensity to play down, Roethlisberger's poor road performances and the way Pittsburgh's defense has not only approached pass coverage this year, but also its struggles against mobile quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel, can help propel the Browns to their greatest victory of the season. They would not have just defeated a dominant divisional rival, but ruined its chances for yet another Super Bowl championship. That in itself should give the Browns a playoff mentality of their own heading into Sunday.
Though a win over Pittsburgh wouldn't erase all the negative that has befallen the Browns this year, it certainly ends their season on a high note. Baltimore pulled it off last week by winning the turnover battle and scoring points off of those turnovers.
Granted, the Browns have just 18 turnovers forced on the year—nine interceptions and nine fumbles recovered—and have scored only 40 points off of them, but that does not mean these takeaway fortunes cannot be turned around. Roethlisberger has been forcing passes, particularly to Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, and particularly on the road. Ball-hawking should be an area the Browns stress in practices leading up to Sunday's game.
"Any Given Sunday" still applies, especially when talking about a divisional battle in which one team can ruin another's chances to play football through the month of January. Baltimore's banged-up secondary and cobbled-together group of receivers, combined with Ryan Mallett at quarterback behind a depleted offensive line, was supposed to have no chance against the "dangerous" Steelers.
Instead, the Steelers came in flat in the first half and could not make up for it in the second. And the less respect they have for the Browns prior to heading to Cleveland this week, the greater the chance that history repeats itself.
The Browns have often looked listless as the losses have piled up this year. But there is reason for this team to be fired up, motivated, prepared and ready to, in head coach Mike Pettine's words before the Seahawks game two weeks ago, "cut it loose."
If there was ever motivation for the Browns to want to end the season on a high note, it's this. A win may give them a 4-12 record and another disappointing finish. But for that win to ruin the hopes and dreams of a hated rival is a sweet success worth fighting to achieve.