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Browns road to playoff berth goes through rival Steelers

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There’s a lot from which to choose for this week’s Big Game, because there are a number of them — including the Dolphins playing the Bills with a playoff berth on the line, the Bears hosting the Packers with a chance to get into the tournament and Washington playing a win-and-in game at Philadelphia.

That’s naming just a few of the games with postseason implications.

Our pick for Sunday is the Browns (10-5) hosting the Steelers (12-3).

Why? Because a Browns win gets them into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Because this is an AFC North blood rivalry.

Because the Browns have been severely compromised by COVID-19 cases that closed their facility down late in the week.

And because the Steelers, not needing to win this game, are expected to rest their key starters, beginning with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Myles Garrett rips off Mason Rudolph’s helmet and tried to slam it into the quarterback’s head during a 2019 game. Garrett accused Randolph of issuing a racial slur.
Myles Garrett rips off Mason Rudolph’s helmet and tried to slam it into the quarterback’s head during a 2019 game. Garrett accused Randolph of issuing a racial slur.
AP

That means Steelers backup quarterback Mason Rudolph will start. When Rudolph last played the Browns, Cleveland’s Myles Garrett, accusing him of uttering a racial slur, ripped off Rudolph’s helmet and tried to slam it into the quarterback’s head.

Garrett was suspended six games by the league for the incident and has spent the past year rehabilitating his image. Rudolph was fined $50,000.

If you need any more subplots than that to keep you interested, then maybe you should try another sport.

A Cleveland win would end the NFL’s longest postseason drought and give the Browns their most wins in the regular season since 1994.

But there are obstacles that have taken place long before kickoff for Cleveland, with the Browns’ schedule compromised by COVID-19. The Browns were victimized last week when their top four receivers were ineligible to play because of COVID-19 protocols, and the result was a loss to the Jets.

The Browns are expected to be without at least five regulars Sunday, including top cornerback Denzel Ward. But they are expected to have their receivers back, including Jarvis Landry.

Coach Kevin Stefanski, refusing to use the COVID-19 issue as an excuse, said, “We will be prepared.’’

A Browns win Sunday would be just their eighth victory over the Steelers in 45 games since 1999.

“I know guys who have been here and just hearing from how they talked about it,’’ Browns running back Nick Chubb told reporters when addressing Cleveland’s futility against Pittsburgh. “We have never been in this position before, so we are playing for those guys, playing for everyone in this city and playing for each other.’’

Steelers receiver Juju Smith-Schuster called beating the hated Browns “a lot of motivation,’’ adding, “For a lot of us, it’s more so being an AFC North division team and knocking them out of the playoffs.’’

The Steelers won the previous meeting this season, 38-7 in Week 6. The Browns didn’t have Chubb for that game and were held to 75 yards rushing. Chubb will play Sunday, as will starting right guard Wyatt Teller, who has missed the past two games with a sprained ankle.

The Browns were held to just 45 rushing yards last week against the Jets, but Teller and rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills, who also was held out of that game with COVID-19 symptoms, figure to boost the rushing attack against the Steelers.

“Jedrick and Wyatt are special players for us,’’ Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said during the week. “They are vital parts of our offense.’’

Mayfield is coming off a sloppy game against the Jets, with three fumbles. Twice he was strip-sacked, and late in the game he lost the ball on a fourth-down QB sneak, clinching the Jets’ second win.

“I have had my back against the wall many a time in my life,’’ Mayfield said during the week. “I think I handle that type of stuff correctly.’’

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn’t sound as if he’s paying any attention to history, whether it was the last meeting or the violent scuffle between Rudolph and Garrett last year.

“That is so far in our rearview mirror that we can’t see it,’’ Tomlin said.

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