Steelers at Browns -- Week 12
Where: Cleveland Browns Stadium (grass, outdoors)
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Spread: Pick ‘em
Forecast: 39 degrees with a 30 percent chance of rain or snow
Records: Browns (Overall: 2-8, AFC North 1-3); Steelers (Overall: 6-4, AFC North 1-1)
Past results: Two most recent season meetings -- Jan. 1, 2012: Steelers 13, Browns 9; Dec. 8, 2011: Steelers 14, Browns 3. Series record: Steelers lead 62-56, including victories in 21 of the past 23 meetings.
What matters: The famed backyard rivalry isn't what it used to be, with the Steelers dominating the “new” Cleveland Browns upon their NFL re-entry in 1999. But they normally wage close contests, and the Browns have pulled the occasional surprise such as 13-6 in 2009 -- a loss that cost the Steelers a berth in the playoffs that year. Then again, these Browns play almost every game close: five of their eight losses this season came by a total of 22 points and seven of their eight came by 10 points or fewer. The Browns' average margin of victory and losses combined? A mere 5.7 points. With former Steelers part-owner Jim Haslam taking control as the Browns owner, it could add a different spin to this game between teams barely 130 miles apart.
Who matters: Charlie Batch, the Steelers' third starting quarterback in three games, will be front and center for his hometown team once again -- he's 5-2 as a Steelers starter, with both losses coming against “old” Cleveland, the Baltimore Ravens. In fact, he beat this Browns franchise under similar circumstances on Nov. 13, 2005, a 34-21 Steelers victory that sent those Browns to 3-6. Then again, he'll be behind an offense with a new yet old wideout, Plaxico Burress who last played for the Steelers eight seasons ago, and possibly a gimpy Antonio Brown, if he's able to play his first game in three weeks. Meantime, the Browns return from injury their best defensive back, Joe Haden.
Key matchups: Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau ran his record to 15-1 against rookie quarterbacks by putting the clamps on Robert Griffin III and Washington last month, so does Brandon Weeden stand much of a chance against rotating, disguising coverages and defensive formations with every player standing? No. The better matchup for the Browns: Rookie running back Trent Richardson vs. a Steelers' defense gouged for two 100-yard games already, and this was a bunch that not long ago went years in between such performances. On the flip side, the Steelers need a potent rushing attack from Jonathan Dwyer and Rashard Mendenhall to keep Batch from a heavy rush, though the Browns' front four shows youthful flashes of brilliance and pedigree.
Injuries of note: Patchwork Pittsburgh continues to apply backups and tape. Batch replaces Byron Leftwich, who broke his ribs six days after replacing a Ben Roethlisberger who injured his ribs along with his shoulder-clavicle muscle. The absence of Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (calf) remains a gaping hole on defense, even though the Steelers' statistically hold their customary top NFL spots. Running back Isaac Redman, who can be a key contributor on third down and short yardage, is attempting to return from a concussion early in the loss to the Ravens in Week 11. And Brown -- a Pro Bowl returner -- is trying to regain health after two-plus games with a high ankle sprain, as is right offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert, who has missed five games with an injured foot. The more prime pieces that surround Batch on Sunday, the better off he should fare.
Inside stuff: If Brown can't line up at WR, it means Batch's three main targets on the outside will be Emmanuel Sanders, David Gilreath and Burress. Combined receptions among those three: 29, all belonging to Sanders. That also means tight end Heath Miller will play a critical role, moreso if Gilbert can start and alleviate the need for Miller to stay in and caddy rookie Mike Adams on right-edge pass protections. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see who becomes the third-down back for the Steelers, with Baron Batch going to the practice squad now that Dwyer, Mendenhall and Isaac Redman appear to need all the carries they can get.
Connections: Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell and linebackers coach Keith Butler once coached the “old” and “new” Browns, respectively. And Browns quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple used to be the mentor for Roethlisberger, who won't play Sunday. . . but just became a daddy this week, to Ben Jr.
Stats you should know: For the past five consecutive games, and seven times this season, the Steelers have limited the opposing offense to a minimum of 170 net passing yards. The unit has pieced together a 33-game streak without allowing 300 net passing yards. That defense has yielded just one offensive touchdown during its past nine quarters plus a few snaps in overtime.
Looking ahead: The Steelers visit Baltimore in Week 13 to complete this AFC North mini-burst of Ravens-at Browns-at Ravens. After San Diego at home and a trip to Dallas, they close with Cincinnati and Cleveland coming to Heinz Field.
Prediction: Steelers 19, Browns 16
Follow Steelers reporter Chuck Finder on Twitter @CBSSteelers and @cfinder.