By WILL GRAVES
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin isn’t going to have the scoreboards blacked out at Heinz Field this afternoon to keep his players in the dark about its playoff fortunes.
His team understands its plight. A victory over reeling Cleveland in the season finale is only part of the complicated equation it will take for the Steelers (7-8) to make the postseason. Baltimore, Miami and San Diego need to lose, too.
Then again, the fact Tomlin and his players can utter the word “playoffs” with a straight face is a testament to the team’s resilience. Pittsburgh has gone 7-4 since an 0-4 start, including rousing wins over Cincinnati and Green Bay in the last two weeks to turn its postseason chances from impossible to merely improbable.
The odds remain slim. Then again, that’s hardly a change for the Steelers. They’ve been that way for the last three months.
“It feels good to have people talk about us in a positive manner when there’s so many times during the season they counted us out over and over and over again,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said.
Of course, the surest way for Pittsburgh to miss the playoffs for the second straight year is by fixating on the scoreboard and losing focus on what’s happening on the field. Though the Browns (4-11) have lost six straight, they’re not exactly in “mail it in” mode.
“We’re going to take this season as a learning experience going into next year,” Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon said. “We’re not really sure what’s going to happen with the roster and personnel and things like that. I think we’re in the right spot. We’ve got the right coaching staff and the right mindset to go far from here.”
Even if the Browns won’t be going anywhere but home to pack up the season once the final gun sounds today. It’s a process the Steelers would like to put off indefinitely, one that will take more than a little help to avoid.
Five things to look for as Pittsburgh attempts to become the second team in NFL history to recover from a winless September to make the playoffs:
Brown delivers: Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown has made the leap from budding young star into one of the NFL’s top targets look effortless. He is third in the league with 101 receptions and has an outside shot to break Hines Ward’s club record of 112 catches set in 2002. In a league where receivers are bigger and stronger than ever, the 5-foot-10, 186-pound Brown might be the smallest outside receiver around. He’s also one of the most versatile and consistent. He’s had at least 50 yards receiving in each game this year, including six catches for 92 yards in the first meeting with Cleveland on Nov. 24.
Gordon vs. Taylor Part II?: Gordon lit up Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor for 237 yards receiving on Nov. 24, though it provided little more than window dressing in a 27-11 loss. The performance, however, provided a springboard for Gordon to put together the best three-game stretch in NFL history, continuing his evolution from trade bait in September to a vital part of Cleveland’s future. He leads the NFL in yards receiving (1,564) and seems happy to stick with the Browns.
Keeping Ben clean: Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will start 16 games for just the second time in his 10-year career. Much of the credit goes to a revamped offense that works primarily out of the no-huddle and is designed for Roethlisberger to get the ball out his hands. He’s been sacked just six times over the last six games and could set a franchise record for yards passing in a season. “I think the hits I do take, it doesn’t hurt quite as much as it has in the past,” Roethlisberger said.
Campbell’s cargo: Earlier this month, it appeared Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell was in the midst of a career revival while giving the Browns a capable placeholder until the next franchise quarterback comes along. Now, not so much. He’s thrown just one touchdown against four interceptions the last two weeks and hardly looked like a long-term solution. A capable performance against the worst Pittsburgh defense in two decades would at least give coach Rob Chudzinski something to think about heading into another long offseason.
Rivalry? What rivalry?: The Steelers have dominated what used to be one of the NFL’s more storied – if not always competitive – rivalries. The Browns have beaten Roethlisberger just once in 17 meetings and are 5-25 against Pittsburgh since the franchise rebooted in 1999. Another loss on Sunday would relegate the Browns to their seventh 12-loss season in 15 years.
By WILL GRAVES
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