The Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers will meet for the 2012 season finale in a game that has no implication on the postseason and will be without several star players. The Steelers were eliminated from playoff contention last week, knocked out by the Bengals who drilled a last second field goal to end it. They will now try to avoid their first losing season since 2003 against a Browns team that will be on their third string quarterback.
After an 0-5 start, the Browns appeared to be making a second-half push towards playing meaningful football over the final month of the season. But a three-game win streak came to an abrupt end against Kirk Cousins and the Redskins, and the season went back off the rails during the final three weeks. Now, they'll turn to Thaddeus Lewis, a third-string quarterback who will fill in for the injured Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy. Both quarterbacks were injured last week in Denver, as was rookie starting running back Trent Richardson, who's already been ruled out for Week 17. With both teams playing for pride only, it will be...interesting to see how things wrap up at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon.
Meet the Steelers
For just the second time under Mike Tomlin, the Pittsburgh Steelers will not make an appearance in the postseason. Pittsburgh's rollercoaster season continued its downward slide last week when Ben Roethlisberger threw a crucial late interception that resulted in prompt defeat. Deep in his own territory, Roethlisberger threw an overtime pick against the Cowboys one week earlier, and he was picked off in the final minute against the Bengals last Sunday. Cincinnati handed the Steelers their third straight loss and ended their playoff chances in bitterly disappointing fashion.
While there's effectively nothing on the line, Big Ben is expected to finish out the season and play in Week 17. He's certainly been involved in drama this season, whether it was the potentially life-threatening injury suffered against the Chiefs or the repeated public criticism of new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Roethlisberger did not play against the Browns in Pittsburgh's disastrous Week 12 loss in Cleveland, and he has a chance to finish things off positively against a division foe.
The Steelers have owned the series against their border rival, and Pittsburgh has not been swept by the Browns since the 80s. The addition of Big Ben and the multiple injuries to the Browns should ensure the Steelers avoid the season sweep. But Pittsburgh will also be without some key contributors, including Roethlisberger's top weapon on the outside, Mike Wallace. Heath Miller, Big Ben's reliable target in the middle, will also not play.
Meet the Browns
The Browns will finish with double digit losses for the fifth straight year, and for the 10th time since the franchise returned in 1999. According to reports from The Plain Dealer on Saturday night, this will be the final game for head coach Pat Shurmur, who's expected to be fired on Monday. Per usual, the final week of the season does not mean anything for the Browns, and the first team on both sides of the ball will be comprised of a patchwork mishmash unit.
Lewis will get the start at quarterback, an unheralded dual-threat out of Duke, where he excelled. He had a moderately impressive preseason, and moved ahead of Seneca Wallace as a potential third-string option. Shurmur's repeatedly stated that he liked Lewis and the various looks he could give a defense both throwing and passing. But it will be an entirely new ballgame facing the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL, and in hostile territory against Dick LeBeau's group.
Lewis will also not have the luxury of handing off to Richardson, but Montario Hardesty has proved himself worthy of an NFL roster spot throughout the season. He's provided a nice change-of-pace from Richardson, and will be just as capable as the banged-up rookie has been recently. But again, facing the Steelers defense which historically stops all running backs, both good and bad, is not exactly the ideal opportunity for Hardesty to make a statement.
That Steelers defense kept Pittsburgh in the game in the teams' first meeting, weathering an astounding eight turnovers by the Charlie Batch-led offense. The Cleveland defense repeatedly popped the Steeler ball carriers, as four separate running backs fumbled. Batch was also careless, throwing three picks against a relatively weak Browns secondary. That already shaky defensive backfield will be without starters Sheldon Brown and T.J. Ward, so Roethlisberger should have a great opportunity to finish the season on a good note after the disappointment of the past three weeks.
Local Takes: Steelers
Neal Coolong from Behind the Steel Curtain notes that this may be the final game in a Steelers uniform for many players, such as James Harrison, and also discusses what else is on the line in the finale:
Although it seems amazingly convenient for Wallace to miss this game - he's played in every game of his NFL career, and he held out from all offseason activities in wake of not having a long-term contract - the Steelers have said all week they're playing to win this game. It appears they will land somewhere between the 13th and 19th pick in the 2013 Draft. Injuries aside, logic would indicate the Browns would be playing this to win as well, considering their new ownership group will likely make sweeping changes this offseason, including the removal of head coach Pat Shurmur and his staff. They'll likely be coaching for employment next season, and likely being without connection or history with the new coaching staff, nearly every player on the roster would be at some level of risk of not returning.
Local Takes: Browns
Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature wonders whether the Browns have any chance with all the injuries:
There is some good news for the Browns, though. They are healthy in the trenches: the offensive and defensive lines are both at full strength. With both teams not playing their best football right now, this game could very well be won at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers aren't exactly coming into this game at full strength either. Two of their most prominent players, CB Ike Taylor and WR Mike Wallace, aren't playing this week. The Steelers' running backs are pretty terrible up and down the depth chart, too. Cleveland is playing on the road, though, and whether this team will be motivated in what appears to be Shurmur's final game remains to be seen. It is Pittsburgh, though, so if they aren't motivated, then that is on the players.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
@MarkKaboly_Trib - Steelers beat reporter
Boomer Esiason is way out of line with these comments about Ben Roethlisberger sulia.com/my_thoughts/66…— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) December 28, 2012
@TonyGrossi - Browns beat reporter
Finally, Steelers fans know what the rest of us feel like on a meaningless Week 17 Sunday.
The pick: 17-13, Steelers
Because of the injuries and the relatively meaningless nature of the game, there was no line set throughout the week. Check in with OddsShark for the latest spread as kickoff approaches.
It's all over for both teams in the 2012 season. And if reports are accurate, Pat Shurmur's last day on the job will be Monday.