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AFC Wild Card: Cleveland-Pittsburgh Round 3

Wild Card weekend caps off with an AFC Grudge Match between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Which team will prevail?

Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb by Erik Drost is licensed under CC BY 2.0

AFC Wild Card: Cleveland-Pittsburgh Round 3

Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes

We (surprisingly) have made it through the 2020 NFL Season and now the playoffs are here! This year introduces a bye for only one team, as well as three Wild Card teams per Conference. The NFL Playoffs are always unpredictable and adding another team should only increase the chance of an upset. With this in mind, every team feels like they have a legit chance to raise that Lombardi Trophy in a few weeks.

We’re looking at every matchup and diving into the history between the teams, the keys to victory for each side, and a prediction on how we think it will play out.

In this preview, we’re looking at a rubber match between two AFC North rivals with a storied history.  

What could be better than a Week 17 rematch to cap off Wild Card weekend?

One week after Cleveland defeated Pittsburgh at FirstEnergy Stadium, the Browns will have to head into Pittsburgh and try to get a win at Heinz Field, where they have not won since 2003.

The Browns and Steelers are the oldest and most played rivalry matchup in the NFL, with 138 meetings dating back to 1950. Pittsburgh leads the all-time series, often called the “Turnpike War”, 77-60-1, including wins in the only two playoff matchups between the sides.

Those postseason games came in 1995 (a 29-9 win by Pittsburgh) and 2003 (36-33 Steelers). Since then, the Steelers have gone on to win three AFC Championships and two Super Bowls, while Cleveland sunk into the depths of the league before finally breaking their 17-year playoff drought this year. Pittsburgh is 29-7 in the series since that 2003 playoff meeting.

Cleveland Brown Keys to Victory: Focus

This is going to be an incredibly tough spot for Cleveland. They have basically already won the Super Bowl just in getting to the playoffs, and their fans are ecstatic. But will that mean a let-down when they actually take the field on Sunday night?

The early results are not encouraging for Cleveland buttoning down and focusing on the job they still have (get) to do. Some of it is not the fault of the team, as they have been hit with an incredibly poorly timed outbreak of Coronavirus. Among others, they will lose veteran guard Joel Bitonio and Head Coach Kevin Stefanski to the Covid-19 list.

Special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer has been named acting head coach, and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will call plays.

Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. and wide receiver Rashard Higgins were cited for drag racing Tuesday morning, with Higgins responding by posting several mocking Tweets about the incident, and Wills claiming that people were “Blowing it way out of proportion.” Not the news you want to hear if you are Browns fans.

Finally, Olivier Vernon, the team’s star defensive end who has 9 sacks, ruptured his Achilles during Sunday’s win over the Steelers and will be lost for the game.

Cleveland also needs to focus on the run, which has been their strength this year. The Browns were 7th in the NFL in rushing, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and were fifth in the NFL with 21 rushing TDs.

The tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is quite possibly the best running back duo in the league. Despite only playing in 12 games this year, Chubb ranked sixth in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns, and his 12 rushes of 20+ yards trailed only Derrick Henry (16). Kareem Hunt was a phenomenal change of pace to the power game of Chubb, who also had the ability to step in as a bell-cow back when Chubb missed time. Hunt led the team with 198 rushing attempts, scoring six touchdowns on the ground, while also handling 38 receptions, averaging 8.0 yards per catch, and hauling in five more scores.

Pittsburgh Steelers Keys to Victory: Throw & Slow

Pittsburgh has led the league in pass attempts, with 656 passes, more than 38.5 per game, though they actually rank in the middle of the pack in completion percentage and yards. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for 33 touchdowns and just ten interceptions, with a season QB rating of 94.1. Even Mason Rudolph threw for over 300 yards and two touchdowns last week in relief of Big Ben, who got an extra week of rest before the playoffs.

The Steelers have a three-headed monster of star wide receivers, led by Diontae Johnson (88 receptions, 923 yards, 7 TDs) and JuJu Smith Schuster (97 receptions, 831 yards, 9 touchdowns). Rookie Chase Claypool has been a revelation, with 62 receptions for 873 yards and 9 touchdowns, though his score last week was the first time he reached the end zone since Week 11.

Big Ben and the Steelers have likely been forced into the league-high in pass attempts because of their inability to run the ball.

The Steelers were last in the league with 3.6 yards per carry and only 12 rushing TDs (remember, Chubb had 12 rushing touchdowns on his own). James Conner has averaged just 4.3 yards per carry, and has not had a 100-yard rushing game since October 18th (Pittsburgh’s 38-7 win over the Browns). He has scored once in the past six games, and has only six touchdowns on the year. He has not found the end zone more than once in any game this year.

Cleveland has been much worse against the pass than the run. On the ground they are allowing just 110.8 yards, 9th best in the league, while they are 11th worst against the pass, giving up 247.6 yards per game. That should play into the strengths of Pittsburgh’s offense.

If they don’t control the ball with a run game, Pittsburgh will want to lean on their defense to slow down the Browns, and they have been one of the best teams in the league in limiting other teams from moving up and down the field. Pittsburgh is third in the league in both total yards allowed and passing yards allowed, though they have not been as good against the run. If they can put Cleveland into longer passing downs, they can unleash TJ Watt, who led the league with 15 sacks, and make Baker Mayfield try to beat their secondary.                                                                                             


I really want to pick the Browns. It would be such a good story, and as a Patriots fan, any time the Steelers lose is a pretty good day. But unfortunately, I just can’t see it happening.

With the combination of the Covid hits to the coaching staff, the distractions and injuries around the team, and the Steelers being home and motivated to not lose to Cleveland two weeks in a row, I have a feeling that this game is going to go exactly the way we expect – with the Steelers pulling away.

Final Score: Pittsburgh 31, Cleveland 17

Now go prove me wrong…

Craig has spent the last ten years as a sports information professional, working for several schools across New England at the Division 3 level. A native of Peabody, Mass., Craig is a life-long Boston sports fan. He is also an avid player of fantasy football and baseball, and commissioner of the AKA Family Fantasy Football League. Like most other Turf team members, Craig has a penchant for theater, spending his high school and college years as a set designer, sound designer and theater shop worker. He became a father shortly before the coronavirus pandemic, and as such, hasn't really left his home since last December.

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