Cleveland (11-5) at Pittsburgh (12-4)
When: Sunday, January 10th, 2021
Where: Heinz Field,
Time: 8:15 ET | TV: NBC
Opening Odds: Pittsburgh -3.5/47
The Cleveland Browns are one of four active franchises to never play in a Super Bowl. The others are the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions. None of those three teams even came close this season. The Browns will visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night for an AFC Wild Card matchup between two franchises that don’t like each other. Both are led by NFL Coach of the Year candidates – Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin. However, Stefanski will not be able to travel with the team this week after testing positive for Covid-19 and will miss the Browns’ first playoff game since 2002. Cleveland’s special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will serve as interim coach and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will take over play-calling duties. The Browns qualified for the postseason after last week’s 24-22 home win over the Steelers. Pittsburgh had already clinched the AFC North title and rested four key starters – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey, linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cam Heyward. Cleveland will be dealing with more than just their coach being out. Starting guard Joel Bitonio, who is on the reserve/COVID-19 list, apparently because of contact tracing, and defensive end Olivier Vernon (Achilles tendon), who was placed on injured reserve.
Roethlisberger, who will be playing in his 22nd playoff game, helps make the Steelers a 6-point favorite in this one with a total set at 47.5. Pittsburgh started the season 11-0 and one of those victories was a 38-7 triumph of Cleveland at Heinz Field back in October. The Steelers’ defense held the Browns to just 1-for-12 on third down conversions. Cleveland has lost 17 straight games in Pittsburgh and is 1-4-1 ATS in the past six there. The under is 3-1 in the last four meetings.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield’s play really improved this season thanks to a lot of play-action and of course one of the best rushing attacks in the league. Cleveland ranked third in rushing at 148.4 yards a game behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Cleveland ranked third in the league in rushing at 148.4 yards per game. When the Browns lost to the Steelers on the road in Week 6, they didn’t have Chubb, and Hunt rushed for just 40 yards on 13 carries. The Browns’ offense ranked 14th in the league with an average of 25.5 points per game. Cleveland’s defense has been inconsistent this season, ranking 22nd against the pass (247.6) and ninth versus the run (110.8). Cleveland is just 3-14 ATS in their last 17 road games and 8-26-2 in their last 36 against teams with winning records.
Pittsburgh will not only get its rested starters back, but could also have others return as well. Guard Matt Feiler (pectoral) and linebacker Robert Spillane (knee) practiced Wednesday and could come off the reserve/injured list in time to play. Safety Terrell Edmunds (shoulder), who missed Sunday’s game, was a full participant in practice, while kicker Chris Boswell (groin) was limited. However, Pittsburgh cornerback Joe Haden is out after testing positive for Covid-19. Haden is a big part of a defense that ranked third overall (305.8) and third versus the pass (194.4). Linebacker TJ Watt led the league with 15 sacks, and 26 tackles for loss and will be the likely NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award winner. The offense has one of the league’s promising rookie receivers in second-round pick Chase Claypool, out of Notre Dame. He had 62 catches for 873 yards and nine scores while also rushing for two more touchdowns. In the first meeting this season versus the Browns, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 162 yards and a touchdown with zero interceptions, while running back James Conner rushed for 101 yards and a score on 20 carries. The Steelers are 5-2 against the spread in their last seven games at home.
The Steelers crushed this team back in October and almost beat them last Sunday without even trying. Pittsburgh’s offense is starting to find it’s stride and Vernon being out for Cleveland on defense is a big deal. Also, not having their head coach on the sidelines could effect the Browns here. I’ll lay the points with the team with more postseason experience.
Pick: Steelers -6
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