Here are five key storylines the Cleveland Browns will be aware of as they take on their Week 17 opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
#1 - Playoff Spot Could be at Stake: Last year, the Steelers finished at 8-8 in the AFC North and missed the playoffs. The final game of the season was against the Browns in Pittsburgh, as Ben Roethlisberger beat Thaddeus Lewis by a score of 24-10. This year, the Steelers enter this game with the same record they had heading into last year's game: 7-8. The stakes are a little higher this time, though, because Pittsburgh knows they still have a slim chance at being the No. 6 seed in the AFC. For that to happen, the following needs to happen:
It doesn't sound of the question, so Pittsburgh will be giving us their best shot. If you're wondering, Cincinnati has motivation to beat Baltimore, because the Bengals could still earn a first-round bye. The Jets will certainly be motivated to take out a division rival. The big question mark in my mind is Kansas City vs. San Diego, since the Chiefs seem bound to rest their starters, but that game will be played after Cleveland-Pittsburgh is over.
#2 - What's Happened Since Week 12: When these two teams met in Week 12, the Steelers handed it to the Browns pretty bad, as Cleveland fell at home by a score of 27-11. After that game the Steelers lost back-to-back games to the Ravens and Dolphins, which is the reason why they are a long-shot for the playoffs -- they don't own tiebreakers over either of those teams.
At 5-8, Pittsburgh rallied to win its next two games, first over the Bengals, and then over the Packers. In each of those past two games, the Steelers have been able to stick with a different game plan: a commitment to the run game. Ben Roethlisberger attempted 25 and 28 passes, two of his lowest three marks of the season. RB Le'Veon Bell had 24 and 26 carries, both of which were season highs. With Cleveland's run defense declining the past two weeks and NT Phil Taylor and DE John Hughes out, expect the Steelers to continue pounding the rock this week.
#3 - Who Will Contain Antonio Brown? I love WR Josh Gordon, but WR Antonio Brown is just as important of a receiver to the Steelers' offense. In fact, one could say that the mini-slump for CB Joe Haden began when Brown beat him for a touchdown back in Week 12, a game in which Brown finished with 6 catches for 92 yards. Brown has 101 catches for 1,412 yards and 8 touchdowns on the season. Haden did not practice all week with his hip injury, and he's been labeled as a game-time decision. If he can't go on Sunday, CB Buster Skrine might get the call against him, and that won't be a match-up to look forward to. Brown has also continued to be effective on punt returns -- over the past two weeks, he has returns of 67 and 41 yards.
#4 - Steelers' Secondary Looking to Feast: It was not a good game for the Browns' quarterbacks the last time these two teams met. QB Jason Campbell was hit on a corner blitz and the ensuing fumble was returned for a touchdown. CB William Gay started that game and had a big day, but this time around, he'll be the nickel back since CB Cortez Allen is back as the starter. S Troy Polamalu also seemed to have his best game of the season against the Browns. The guy who thrived that day was Browns WR Josh Gordon against CB Ike Taylor, as Gordon had 14 catches for 237 yards and 1 touchdown. The Steelers will probably try to do something to have more attention on Gordon this time around.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: K Shaun Suisham continues to be effective for the Steelers. He's connected on 28-of-30 attempts on the season, but remember that he is not counted on as a long-range kicker. Their punter, Mat McBriar, continues to be among the worst punters in the league. Earlier, I mentioned how WR Antonio Brown is picking up the pace on punt returns -- he had 2 punt returns for 19 yards the last time these two teams met. RB Felix Jones and WR Emmanuel Sanders have been seeing the most action on kick returns.