The Pittsburgh Steelers have secured a first-round bye and still have an outside shot at the No. 1 seed when they host the winless Cleveland Browns in Sunday’s regular-season finale. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is unsure how much he will play his starters versus Cleveland, which is trying to avoid becoming the second NFL team to finish 0-16.
Pittsburgh’s only chance at wresting the top overall seed from New England is to have the Patriots lose at home to the New York Jets. Tomlin said it will likely be an “11th-hour decision” as to how much playing time to give his starters but insisted there will be no “empathy” toward the plight of the Browns factoring into his thoughts. “More important than anything is we lay a foundation of our plan and get going in terms of things we need to do to play well. That’s always been our mentality,” Tomlin insisted. “Those are things (playing) we’ll decide later in the week.” Cleveland is 1-30 under coach Hue Jackson, who said he expects to be back next season regardless of whether the Browns join the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in history to go winless in a 16-game season.
TV: 1 p.m. ET, CBS. LINE: Steelers -11. O/U: 38
ABOUT THE BROWNS (0-15): Cleveland has lost five in a row to Pittsburgh, including a 21-18 setback at home in the season opener, and it’s hard to envision that streak ending after the team has been limited to 10 points or fewer in four of the past six games. Quarterback DeShone Kizer has had a rocky rookie season with nine touchdowns versus a league-worst 21 interceptions, including two picks in each of the last three games. Running back Isaiah Crowell rushed for a career-best 152 yards in the 2016 regular-season finale against Pittsburgh, but he was held to 33 yards on 17 carries in the Week 1 loss. The defense has been stout against the run, yielding 97.1 yards per game.
ABOUT THE STEELERS (12-3): Star wide receiver Antonio Brown, who has 101 receptions and NFL-best 1,533 yards, already has been ruled out for the second straight game with a calf injury. Despite his absence, Pittsburgh rolled over Houston 34-6 last week as Ben Roethlisberger threw for 226 yards and two scores, including one to promising rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has 32 of his 49 receptions over his past six games. Running back Le’Veon Bell, the NFL’s third-leading rusher with 1,291 yards, managed only 32 in the season opener and could be a candidate to sit out or see limited time. Pittsburgh’s defense ranks second in the league with 50 sacks.
1. Roethlisberger has thrown as least two TD passes in seven straight games versus Cleveland.
2. Browns WR Josh Gordon has been quiet since returning from his suspension, but he has 21 catches in his last two versus the Steelers.
3. Pittsburgh went to the Super Bowl (2008, 2010) the last two times it earned a first-round bye.
PREDICTION: Steelers 23, Browns 16