Week 14 of the NFL season starts with what looks like quite a mismatch when sliding Cleveland visits Pittsburgh on Thursday night as the Steelers look to continue their push for the AFC North title and the top seed in the conference. (As an aside, boy are we in a rut when it comes to NFL primetime weeknight games: Eagles-Seahawks last Thursday, Chargers-Jags on Monday, this one, Rams-Seahawks on Dec. 12 and Jaguars-Falcons on Dec. 15).
Pittsburgh had no trouble beating Cincinnati 35-7 on Sunday to sweep the season series. The Steelers weren’t all that impressive offensively but the defense sure was, holding Bengals rookie QB Andy Dalton to just 135 yards passing and Cincy to 232 total yards.
Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison had three sacks and didn’t even play in the fourth quarter. At 9-3, the Steelers are tied with New England, Baltimore and Houston for the AFC’s top mark, but if the playoffs started today Pittsburgh would only be a wild-card team because of a head-to-head tiebreaker loss with the Ravens. The Baltimore Ravens' schedule is much easier than the Steelers' schedule from here on out.
Some thought the Browns (4-8) would take a step forward this year, but that hasn’t been the case. Cleveland lost 24-10 to Baltimore on Sunday, its second loss in a row and fifth in six games.
Colt McCoy also has taken a step back, leading some to wonder if he really is the QB of the future in Cleveland. McCoy completed only 17-of-35 attempts for 192 yards and a 63.0 passer rating Sunday. The former Texas star has passed for more than 200 yards in just one of his past five games.
The Browns’ best offensive weapon, WR/KR Josh Cribbs, didn’t touch the ball on offense Sunday.
Browns at Steelers Betting Storylines
Pittsburgh’s other two defensive stars outside of Harrison, safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker LaMarr Woodley, both played Sunday despite injuries. Woodley, who hadn’t played since Oct. 30 because of a left hamstring strain, tweaked that hammy in the first half and didn’t return. But it’s not thought to be serious and Woodley, along with Polamalu, should play vs. Cleveland.
However, the Steelers might have to platoon Woodley, their sack leader, for the rest of the year with Jason Worilds due to that sensitive hamstring. The plan had been to split snaps between Woodley and Worilds on Sunday, but Woodley only played a quarter.
Steelers right guard Ramon Foster sprained his right ankle against Cincy and may have to sit. He would be replaced by Trai Essex.
The Browns’ McCoy injured his knee in the first quarter vs. Baltimore but missed only one series. He should start this one (Seneca Wallace is the backup).
If McCoy has been a disappointment, RB Peyton Hillis (276 yards rushing this season), the Madden cover boy, has been a total disaster. He has been a malcontent and has played only six games because of “injuries.” Hillis had 12 carries for 45 yards vs. Baltimore but got nicked up again, so his status is unsure for Pittsburgh.
Monterio Hardesty would start if Hillis can’t go. The Browns rank No. 30 in total offense, No. 24 in passing yards per game, No. 30 in rushing and No. 28 in points per game (14.6). Good luck against a Pittsburgh defense that is among the NFL leaders in pretty much every statistical category.
The Browns-Steelers rivalry hasn’t been much of one of late. Pittsburgh swept Cleveland last season easily and has won 14 of the past 15. At Heinz Field, the Steelers are 10-1 against Cleveland (the lone loss coming in 2003).
Browns at Steelers Betting Odds and Trends
Pittsburgh opened as a 13.5-point favorite with the total at 39.5 on NFL odds.
The Browns are 3-7-2 ATS this season and 2-3 ATS on road. Pittsburgh is 6-6 ATS and 4-2 ATS at home. "Over/under" records: PIT 6-6, CLE 5-7.
The Browns are 0-1 as a dog of at least 10.5 this year (at Houston). Pittsburgh is 1-3 ATS as a favorite of at least 10.5 this year (at KC, vs. Jacksonville, at Indy all losses; vs. Seattle a win).
NFL Picks: Browns at Steelers Betting Preview
Look for Pittsburgh RB Rashard Mendenhall to be the key guy in this one after Baltimore’s Ray Rice had 204 on the ground Sunday vs. Cleveland. Over the last six games, the Browns have allowed six running backs to reach the 100-yard mark.
Overall, Cleveland has given up 100 yards to eight running backs this season, three more than any other team. The most 100-yard rushers allowed by any team in one year since 2000 is 12, by the 2008 Lions, so at least the Browns can’t break that record.
The Browns are 5-16 (.238) on the road over the past three seasons, so they aren’t going to win. I think this line might grow, so I would jump on Pittsburgh now at 13.5.
I can’t see the Browns scoring more than 10 points and the Steelers should be able to manage 24-27 (it will be cold but not wintry), so also take the "under."
Doc Moseman is the owner of Doc’s Sports football picks Web site.