Cleveland Browns: Pittsburgh Game Far From Meaningless For Browns

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 31, 2010

Cleveland Browns: Pittsburgh Game Far From Meaningless For Browns

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    In the final game of the 2010 regular season, the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers will face off in another chapter of the long-standing and historic rivalry.

    The two teams enter Sunday's game at vastly opposite ends of the football spectrum. With a victory, the Steelers will earn yet another AFC North title and secure a first-round playoff bye, while the Browns have nothing to play for but pride and honor.

    While the Browns may have little to play for, it doesn't mean that they are simply going to roll over for their hated rivals. It certainly doesn't mean that fans shouldn't watch this game, either.

    In fact, Sunday's game has plenty of importance for the Cleveland Browns as the team looks to close the 2010 season on a high note. Here are 10 reasons why the final game of 2010 may actually be the season's most important for the Browns.

Mangini's Last Chance

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    Hanging over Cleveland like a cloud is the should-he-stay-or-should-he-go drama surrounding head coach Eric Mangini.

    Supporters of Mangini point to the way he has changed the culture and attitude of the team and to the competitiveness the Browns have shown all year long.

    Detractors point out the poor in-game decisions, lackluster offense and above all, the disappointing win-loss record. Mangini is currently 10-21 as head coach of the Browns.

    Ultimately, Mangini's future in Cleveland rests in the hands of team president Mike Holmgren, and he may have already made his decision, but Sunday's game may be the make-or-break moment that tips the scales one way or another.

    Even with an upset victory on Sunday, the Browns would have only a one win improvement over 2009, which in itself is probably not enough to save Mangini's job. However, another victory over a team that has been nearly impossible for Cleveland to beat would shine brightly in Mangini's bid for retention.

A Chance For Hillis To Finish Strong

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    Running back Peyton Hillis has simply been a revelation for the Browns in 2010. The fourth-year player has exceeded every conceivable expectation this season, amassing over 1,600 total yards and 13 total touchdowns.

    However, Hillis has been slowed in recent weeks, both by lingering injuries and by opposing defenses that have finally figured out that the best way to stop the Browns is by keying on Hillis every time he is on the field.

    On Sunday, Hillis will have one last chance to post a big game and show off why he deserves to be an integral part of Cleveland's future.

    Hillis has missed practice all week with a rib injury, but you can bet he will do everything in his power not to miss this game. After all, there will be plenty of time for rest during the offseason.

Robiskie's Shot at Redemption

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    Second-year wideout Brian Robiskie has met second-round draft status and high expectations with minimal on-field production. For the better part of two seasons, Robiskie has found himself sliding toward official "bust" status.

    However, in the past two games, Robiskie has finally managed to start producing at an acceptable level, hauling in seven passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns against Baltimore and Cincinnati.

    With a major overhaul at the wide receiver position likely coming in the offseason, Robiskie's time may be running out, but the game against Pittsburgh at least gives him an opportunity to prove that his recent production is not a fluke and that he has truly turned the corner.

Stay Out Of the Basement

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    At the start of the season, experts were quick to predict that the Cincinnati Bengals would repeat as AFC North Champions and that the Cleveland Browns would, once again, finish dead last in the division.

    However, this season would only confirm the fact that the NFL is tough to predict, and a week 4 loss in Cleveland sent the Bengals on a downward spiral to the bottom of the division. 

    The Browns found a way to pull off a few wins while the Bengals continued to lose, and at one point, it seemed a forgone conclusion that, while Cleveland may not finish at the top of the division, they weren't going to finish last.

    Unfortunately, the Browns were unable to sweep their in-state rivals, and the Bengals followed up a victory over Cleveland with a huge upset win over the Chargers and now sit just one game behind the Browns.

    While Cleveland ends the year against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati finishes the year with a trip to Baltimore, a team the Bengals have already beaten this year.

    Should the Browns and Bengals finish 2010 with the same record, it would place Cleveland in the AFC North basement based on division record. Therefore, it may take a win over the Steelers to keep the Browns out of last place.

Final Audition For Colt McCoy

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    By now, everyone knows that rookie quarterback Colt McCoy wasn't supposed to see the field in 2010. By now, everyone knows how long that plan lasted.

    On Sunday, McCoy will start his eighth game of the year, meaning he will have played exactly half of a rookie season that wasn't supposed to be.

    McCoy has played well this year, especially considering the serious lack of talent around him with which to work. In seven games, McCoy has passed for 1,367 yards, completed 63.5 percent of his passes and has posted a respectable 81.9 QB rating. He has also shown great poise and leadership under center and has provided hope that Cleveland has finally found its quarterback.

    However, McCoy had his worst game as a pro last week when he was picked off three times and had an abysmal QB rating of 27.0.

    President Holmgren said weeks ago that he wanted to get a good look at McCoy's ability to perform in the poor winter conditions at Cleveland Browns Stadium. After last week's loss, questions about that ability remain.

    A strong showing at home against Pittsburgh will likely cement McCoy's status as the starter heading into 2011, but another poor performance could bring the dreaded quarterback controversy monster back to the shores of Lake Erie.

Remembering Why We Love Josh Cribbs

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    After finally getting a much-desired contract extension during the off-season, Joshua Cribbs has been quiet. Too quiet.

    No one could be more upset about that than Cribbs. 

    Nagging injuries and opponents' caution have kept Cribbs from being as effective as in recent seasons, but the do-everything player is still very dangerous. Cribbs is looking to redeem himself in the eyes of fans, and Sunday's game presents the perfect opportunity.

    Some of Cribbs' biggest games have come against the Pittsburgh Steelers and no one has forgotten his tough, gutty, passionate performance last year where he rushed for 87 yards out of the Flash package and led Cleveland to that memorable Thursday night victory.

    An early helmet-to-helmet shot prevented Cribbs from getting going the last time these two teams met and don't think that he has forgotten. Not only would another big game against Pittsburgh give Cribbs a sense of payback, but it would remind Browns fans everywhere why they fell in love with the talented, humble player in the first place.

The Role Of Spoiler

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    When the Cleveland Browns defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 13-6 on Thursday Night Football last season, it was doubly sweet for Browns fans.

    Not only did Cleveland snap a 12 game losing streak against Pittsburgh, but the win also helped keep the Steelers out of the playoff picture.

    Pittsburgh has already clinched a playoff birth this season, but a loss to the Browns coupled with a Baltimore victory over Cincinnati would deny the Steelers the division crown as well as a coveted first-round bye in the playoffs.

    How sweet would that be?

Haden, Ward Playing For Honors

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    Here's something fans haven't seen in a while: Not one, but two of the year's most productive rookies wearing a Browns uniform.

    Fortunately for the Browns, that is exactly what has happened this year with cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward.

    Despite only starting six games in 2010, Haden has posted impressive numbers including 58 tackles, 6 interceptions and 17 passes defended.

    Ward, on the other hand, has started from day one and has racked up an astounding 116 tackles to go with 2 picks and a forced fumble.

    Both Haden and Ward have to be considered in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and a huge game by either player could push them to the front of the pack.

Honoring a Legend

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    It is sad to think that Sunday's game could be the last for kicker Phil Dawson in a Browns uniform, but Dawson is in the final year of his contract and all signs point to him being released in the offseason.

    If this is Dawson's final game as a Brown, it will mark the end of an era in Cleveland. Dawson has spent all of his 12 seasons with the Browns and is the only player remaining from the 1999 team who saw the return of Cleveland Browns football.

    While Dawson has often been an overlooked player on the Browns roster, words cannot describe the importance he has had for the organization. Earlier this season, Dawson passed Hall of Famer Lou Groza as Cleveland's all-time field goal leader, a feat that speaks volumes about what a special player Dawson has been.

    If that weren't impressive enough, Dawson is also the ninth most accurate kicker in NFL history, despite kicking through the tough Lake Erie rain, snow and wind.

    All statistics aside, there has been something stable, something comforting in the sight of good ol' #4 on the sideline year in and year out.

    Now that time may have come to an end.

    Browns players and fans alike should have a sense of pride in having Dawson on the team through all these seasons, and while it would be great to see Dawson get one more contract, a proper send-off would be nice too.

It's a Rivalry Game, Folks!

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    Let's be honest, Sunday's game needs no hype. It is, of course, the Browns-Steelers game.

    It is a game in which records mean nothing and bragging rights mean everything.

    That alone is reason enough to watch.