Browns at Steelers prediction: How to watch, stream, key matchups for pivotal AFC North showdown
The winner of this game will be firmly in the AFC playoff picture
There's been one common denominator when discussing the most heated battles within the AFC North over the past decade: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While they're not always the division's best team, it seems that the Steelers are always a part of whatever the division's marquee matchup is, whether it's Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore, Cincinnati or, as is the case now, the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens may be the AFC North's top team, but the North's best rivalry is currently the division's oldest rivalry.
"We're excited about this game," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. "We love being in hot-button games. We love being in hotly contested AFC North games. To be quite honest with you, we're not a group that runs from these types of games; we're the type of group to run to these types of games.
"We've had some battles with the Ravens over the years; that's kind of been the signature matchup in the North. We've had some battles with Cincinnati over the years, which grew to be kind of a signature matchup in the North and maybe, the same thing is happening with this. We don't know, nor do we care, we just want to be a part of it, whatever it is, because it is a competitor's game and a competitor's league."
Before we break down Thursday's game, here's how you can follow the action in real time.
How to watch
While the Steelers remain a game ahead of the Browns in the AFC North division standings, the Browns come to Pittsburgh on a three-game winning streak. After a slow start, the Browns are starting to look like the team many fans and media analysts were picking to win their first division title since 1989. In Sunday's 41-24 win over the Dolphins, the Browns racked up 30 first downs and 467 yards of total offense. Quarterback Baker Mayfield had no issues getting the ball to receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who combined to catch 16 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns. Nick Chubb, who has already eclipsed 1,100 rushing yards for the season, ran for 106 yards on 21 carries, while Kareem Hunt scored his first touchdown since being activated in Week 9.
Cleveland will face a more formidable foe this Sunday in Pittsburgh, whose defense is second in the NFL in forced turnovers (28) and interceptions (14) and third in sacks (38). The Steelers' defense currently has four players who are leading their respective position in AFC Pro Bowl fan voting in Cam Heyward (6.5 sacks), T.J. Watt (11.5 sacks), rookie Devin Bush (79 tackles, four fumble recoveries, and two interceptions), and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (five interceptions, two forced fumbles and two touchdowns). On Sunday, Fitzpatrick's recovery of Bush's forced fumble of Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd was key in Pittsburgh's 16-10 victory.
Sunday's game will surely be an intense one, as it will be played a little over two weeks after the fight that took place between Browns pass rusher Myles Garrett and Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. Garrett was suspended indefinitely by the NFL after slamming Rudolph in the head with Rudolph's own helmet. Despite not having Garrett, the Browns sacked Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick four times while holding Miami to just 284 total yards. Browns defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson recorded two sacks and a forced fumble, while linebacker Joe Schobert recorded two interceptions.
Tomlin announced on Tuesday that he is handing over the keys of the Steelers' offense over to rookie quarterback Devlin "Duck" Hodges, who led Pittsburgh to three scoring drives in relief of Rudolph during last Sunday's win in Cincinnati. Hodges, who is 1-0 as a starter, threw a 79-yard touchdown pass to James Washington on his third play after replacing Rudolph, who threw four interceptions in Pittsburgh's Week 11 loss in Cleveland. With JuJu Smith-Schuster (concussion, knee) and James Conner (shoulder) inactive, the Steelers' offense relied heavily last Sunday on rookie running back Benny Snell, who rushed for a career-high 98 yards on 21 carries. Washington and Snell's roles on Sunday may again be significant ones if Smith-Schuster and/or Conner can't go.
Pittsburgh's offense, with or without Conner and Smith-Schuster, will look different with Hodges under center. In Hodges' only start, Pittsburgh's Week 5 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, the Steelers ran the ball 36 times while controlling the ball for over 34 minutes. Hodges mostly played it safe, going 15-of-20 for 132 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Hodges spent the bulk of his night handing the ball off to Conner and Snell, who combined to gain 116 yards and a score on 33 carries. Conner also caught all seven of his targets for 78 yards and a score, which could mean a big receiving day for fellow running back Jaylen Samuels if Conner is inactive.
That being said, Hodges isn't afraid to let it rip if he sees the opportunity to do so. This could either lead to extremely good or bad things for the Steelers, who will have to win the turnover ratio if they want to win this game. They will also have have success running the football against a Browns defense that ranks 25th against the run entering Sunday's game.
While Sunday's game reminds Tomlin of previous AFC North battles between Baltimore and Cincinnati, it reminds me of Pittsburgh's victory over the visiting Cowboys in Week 14 of the 2008 season. With the Steelers' offense struggling, Pittsburgh's formidable defense, led by Troy Polamalu and James Harrison, held Tony Romo, Terrell Owens, and the rest of the Cowboys' formidable offensive attack to just 13 points. The Steelers' defense also provided the game-winning score, as cornerback Deshea Townsend's pick-six was the difference in Pittsburgh's 20-13 victory. The Steelers would go onto win the Super Bowl, while the Cowboys would fall just short of the playoffs.
Pittsburgh's modern day defense may not be the 2008 Steelers defense, and Mayfield may not be the modern day Romo, but you get the idea. Oftentimes, late-season football games between two teams of similar ability are determined by pivotal plays by the defense. While Cleveland's defense has recently shown the ability to make plays, the Steelers' defense has routinely come up with big plays this season while being the main reason why Pittsburgh remains in playoff contention entering Sunday's game.
If the Steelers can make the Browns' offense one-dimensional, limiting Chubb and Hunt to minimal gains, maintain outside containment on Mayfield (something they struggled to do in Week 11) and coming up with yet another critical turnover, Pittsburgh will even their season series with Cleveland while remaining on the inside track of the AFC playoff picture in the process.
Steelers 20, Browns 13
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