NFL 2020 Divisional Round: Browns at Chiefs

The Chiefs begin their run to end the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion. After a historic streak of close wins and the dreaded “playoff rest in Week 17 followed by a bye” combo, should the Chiefs be on upset alert against a hungry Cleveland team?

For previews of Saturday’s games, click here.

Browns at Chiefs (-10)

The last time we saw Patrick Mahomes, he was just getting by the Falcons in an uncharacteristic 17-14 victory. That was three weeks ago from this Sunday. The Chiefs have since rested starters in a 38-21 blowout against the Chargers to end their record 60-game streak of not losing by more than eight points, and then had a bye week.

Meanwhile, the last time we saw the Browns, they were embarrassing the Steelers with a 28-0 start in the first quarter before winning their first playoff game since the 1994 season. This week their head coach, Kevin Stefanski, is back from COVID-19 and so is Denzel Ward, their best corner.

Doesn’t this 10-point spread feel a bit off considering the Chiefs just set an NFL record with seven straight wins by fewer than seven points? No other team has ever had more than five straight. The Chiefs have not beaten anyone by more than six points since the lowly Jets in Week 8, which was before the election if you need help with how long ago that was. Cleveland’s only losses by more than 10 this year were early-season blowouts in Baltimore (38-6) and Pittsburgh (38-7), but clearly the Browns closed the gap on those teams later in the year.

Look, I get it.

The Chiefs’ spread is -10 and double-digit favorites in the playoffs are 60-13 SU (.822) and 43-29-1 ATS (.596) in the Super Bowl era. They are 50-7 (.877) at home. The Browns were outscored 37-20 in the final three quarters in Pittsburgh and took advantage of a total gift on the opening botched snap for a touchdown and got two more tipped ball interceptions.

Baker Mayfield probably isn’t going to have another game where he isn’t even pressured once, though that offensive line is very good.

With Tennessee eliminated, the Browns have the worst remaining defense in the playoffs, ranked 23rd in points per drive allowed and have already allowed 34+ points seven times (six on the road).

Oh yeah, Mahomes is 23-1 in his last 24 starts, Andy Reid is 25-5 after a bye week, and the Chiefs have yet to score fewer than 31 points in the playoffs with Mahomes at quarterback. They also set an NFL record this year by beating five teams with a winning record on the road.

By now, you just expect the Chiefs to find a way to outscore the opponent and come away with the win. They won so many tight games this year and it was usually thanks to the offense taking over in the final minutes with a one-score lead and either expanding to a two-score lead or running out the clock. The 2020 Chiefs may have had the best four-minute offense season in NFL history.

The Chiefs did not blow a fourth quarter lead this season, but the offense did so well in close games that the defense rarely had to defend a 4QC/GWD attempt. When the offense failed to close the game out against Carolina, the defense had to stop the Panthers from a game-winning field goal. Thankfully, Teddy Bridgewater was awful in those moments all year (0-9 record), and the Panthers used the 86 seconds they were given to only set up a 67-yard field goal that was missed.

That was the closest call for the Chiefs and the defense’s best effort to save a game. Mahomes left Derek Carr only 28 seconds in Las Vegas when he forced a game-ending interception. Mahomes left Denver’s Drew Lock only 64 seconds, needing a touchdown after the Chiefs added a field goal, when the defense intercepted him too. Matt Ryan drove the Falcons down the field for at least overtime, but Younghoe Koo missed a short field goal to end that one.

I feel that the Kansas City defense is most responsible for why this team has not pulled away with ease in any game in over two months. No matter how well the game begins, it just seems like every one of them comes down to Mahomes with the ball late and in a one-score game.

Throw in the potential for rust, the shaky offensive line of recent weeks, the running game not always reliable, and this defense not being tested enough, and I think it’s a potential recipe for disaster this postseason.

Then again, how could anyone start a Super Bowl run worse than the Chiefs last year when they fell behind 24-0 to the Texans in the AFC divisional round?

Once the Chiefs got past the self-inflicted wounds, they dominated Houston and won 51-31, a game that wasn’t even close in the fourth quarter.

I would be far more worried for the Chiefs if it were Baltimore instead of Cleveland. Mayfield will need to have an exceptional game. I pointed out the zero pressures the

Steelers got on Sunday, but they also had zero takeaways and the Browns had two 40-yard touchdown catches with at least 30 YAC on each. In the regular season, the Browns had one pass play, let alone any touchdowns, with 30+ YAC. Just one.

Unusual things can happen in this league, but the Browns have to come in prepared for this one like they were against the Steelers and their road win in Tennessee. It is going to take points for sure as the over/under is 57 points. In NFL playoff history in games with a total of at least 54 points, the over is 10-5 and the home team is 10-5 SU.

The 2020 Browns have already tied the NFL record for most games in a season (playoffs included) where both teams scored 30 points. The 2018 Chiefs are one of six teams on that list, but something in Cleveland’s favor is they are 5-1 in these games.

Maybe it will be 66-59 like a classic meeting in college between Mayfield and Mahomes, won by Baker’s Oklahoma team.

That game had 10 straight touchdown drives in the second half before Oklahoma finally got one more first down on the ground with Joe Mixon to end it and deny Mahomes one last chance with the ball.

Oddly enough, scoring a shitload of points and denying Mahomes the ball at the end has carried over to be the best way to beat him in the NFL too.

Mahomes is 42-9 as a starter in the NFL. He has led the Chiefs to at least 22 points in 49 of his 51 starts. Outside of that weird 19-13 loss to the Colts in 2019, he has only lost when the opponent has scored more than 28 points.

I compiled a couple of charts to show just how hard it is to beat Mahomes and the Chiefs and what type of benchmarks it usually takes to come out with the win.

Before I go into the details, this second chart shows the 24 games where teams scored at least 20 points on the Chiefs and still lost. You’ll notice a lot more red here to indicate that they didn’t achieve the benchmarks I’ve laid out.

Keep in mind we are making a series of comparisons between samples of nine games (Table 1) and 24 games (Table 2), but I cannot help the fact that Mahomes is only this far into his career and we already talk about him in such historical context. I also understand that lots of these things would be helpful in beating any team in the NFL, but it’s just more pronounced with the Chiefs in the Mahomes era.

I’ll go over each section of the charts and how the 2020 Browns fit into this.

Opp Rec (+PO)

You can see the opponent’s final record and the playoffs are included in parenthesis if they made it. Seven of Mahomes’ nine losses are to playoff teams. Only those pesky 2019 Colts had a losing record while the Raiders finished .500 this year thanks to choking away that Miami game. This isn’t really an indicator of anything, but just providing context to the games listed. This is common sense that it will usually take a playoff team to beat a team like the Chiefs.

Fortunately for Cleveland, the Browns are a 12-5 playoff team this year and not the 7-8-1 team they were in 2018 when they lost 37-21 to the Chiefs.

Opp Scored > 28?

Did the opponent score more than 28 points on the Chiefs? Clearly you must score at least 29 to get the job done. Derek Carr had the game of his career this year and put up 40 points in Mahomes’ only loss in the last 24 games. In Table 2, only seven of those 24 teams scored more than 28.

The Browns have scored at least 32 points in eight of 17 games this season, so they are more than capable.

Opp TOP > 35 MIN?

I usually don’t talk about time of possession much because it just ends up being a result of playing well on both sides of the ball rather than something you can strive for on purpose. However, keeping the ball away from a great quarterback should always be high on the priority list for a team.

The Chiefs actually lost time of possession in eight of the nine games in Table 1, but in terms of letting the team have the ball 35 minutes or more, that happened two-thirds of the time. It only happened three times in the other 24 games, all wins by the Chiefs. That difference can be made up at the end of the game when your offense is the one finishing things off instead of Mahomes.

The Browns finished fifth in TOP/drive this season, right behind the Chiefs. The Panthers were second and they gave the Chiefs fits as you can see in Table 2 in one of the closest games on that list that was nearly a loss.

KC 8+ PEN? and KC 60+ PEN YD?

The next two columns are looking at penalties on the Chiefs. There has never been convincing evidence that the number of penalties or penalty yardage has a significant correlation to team performance. Mostly you just want to avoid the real costly ones that take away touchdowns or extend drives for the opponent.

Kansas City is a perfect example of this as the two New England losses in 2018 were the only losses where they did not have at least eight penalties or 60 yards of penalties. However, what’s the most memorable penalty in Kansas City history? Dee Ford lining up offsides by a centimeter in the AFC Championship Game, wiping out a game-ending interception thrown by Tom Brady in the final minute. Bummer.

However, Chiefs fans this year know their penalties can be costly. In the Raiders loss, they had two touchdowns wiped out by holding and offensive pass interference. The wins over Tampa Bay and Denver were a lot closer late after bad penalties for the Chiefs into third-and-forever situations. The Chiefs could do a better job with penalties than they do.

In the 24 wins, the Chiefs only hit eight penalties 10 times and 60+ penalty yards nine times, so they were better in those games at keeping the flags down.

Opp Rush for > 170 yds?

I feel like this one was a little controversial when I was selling it before Super Bowl LIV, but the fact is you usually have to run the ball well on the Chiefs to beat them. Two-thirds of the losses again were when the opponent rushed for at least 170 yards, and the Rams in that 54-51 game were the only team that did it without rushing for at least 119 yards.

I know I raised the bar high there, but it was still hit six times in nine losses while in the 24 wins in Table 2, only seven teams crossed 170 yards. Mahomes needed a fourth-quarter comeback in three of those seven games.

For the teams that beat the Chiefs, it’s not like they were just piling up those rushing yards in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. No game in the NFL has been out of reach for Mahomes yet. These teams used the run to help facilitate their scoring, sometimes they hit big runs (like the Titans win in 2019), and to keep Mahomes off the field.

Can a Cleveland team with five 190-yard rushing games this season run well on the Chiefs? I believe so. Nick Chubb is great, and we know Kareem Hunt is viewing this as a revenge game, even if he only has his damn self to blame for the Chiefs cutting him.

The Chiefs will need a big effort to contain Chubb and Hunt in this one. The good news is the Chiefs are 5-0 this season when they allow 150+ rushing yards, never allowing more than 20 points in those games. But they’re not playing the Broncos, Brian Hoyer, Justin Herbert in his first game, or the Ravens (Lamar struggles with KC) in this one.

The Chiefs rank 32nd in red zone touchdown rate allowed this year (76.6%). That is not encouraging against a Cleveland offense that was third (73.6%) in that category this year. That’s why I love Chubb and Hunt to both score touchdowns in my Same Game Parlays for this one.

The Browns won’t set any rushing records in this one, but a long Chubb run in the fourth quarter could be the difference in another Super Bowl ring and a one-and-done.

Opp Gained 450+ Yds?

Did the opponent gain at least 450 yards of offense? Again, just more common sense that you need a lot of points to beat the Chiefs, and that’s something that requires significant yards unless you have the Chicago Bears D/ST in one of their random playoff years.  

The Chiefs allowed 450+ yards in two-thirds of their losses. They did it in only four of the 24 wins listed.

The Browns were 3-1 this year when they hit 450 yards, only losing that 47-42 game to Baltimore.

KC TO?

How many turnovers did the Chiefs have? I often speak of the “obligatory Chiefs fumble” and you can see that was really born in 2019 when they lost a big fumble in those losses to the Colts, Texans, and Titans (returned for a touchdown in that one).

The Chiefs had a turnover in seven of their nine losses and multiple turnovers in four of the games. In the 24 wins, they only had four games with multiple turnovers and eight games without a turnover.

Half of Mahomes’ six interceptions this season came in Miami when he had two tipped balls and Xavien Howard made a one-handed catch. Maybe he got it out of his system that day. Week 16 against Atlanta was the only other time the Chiefs had multiple turnovers this year, though one of them was a horrible decision to call a trick play on fourth down that led to Sammy Watkins throwing the pick.

Like I said earlier, the Browns had some great fortune on three of their five takeaways against the Steelers after a season where they were mediocre at best at taking the ball away. Instead of getting a pick, Cleveland’s best bet may be Myles Garrett getting a strip sack this week. He is nursing a shoulder injury though, but that Chiefs offensive line has been shaky at best down the stretch.

Denied or Stopped PM Late?

These last two columns in the charts perhaps tell each game’s story the best. No matter how well the game started or what you did well, can you stop Mahomes late in the game? Can you flat out deny giving him the ball last or in the final minutes?

When the Chiefs have lost in Table 1, it’s usually more of a denial (the tan green cells) of Mahomes than a flat-out stop. Only the Rams in that 54-51 game stopped him cold by getting two picks late, and I use “cold” lightly as he did throw a go-ahead touchdown pass with 2:47 left.

The 2019 Texans and 2020 Raiders ran out the clock on him, denying him that final drive with the ball. The 2018 Patriots twice beat him on the final snap, scoring last after getting the coin flip and ball in overtime in the AFC Championship Game. Philip Rivers threw that game-winning two-point conversion with four seconds left in 2018, basically the last play there. The 2018 Seahawks and 2019 Colts extended to a two-score lead in the last 2:30. Mahomes answered with a score both times, but not enough time left and the onside kicks failed. Finally, the 2019 Titans left Mahomes only 17 seconds, but he still set up a 52-yard field goal that was blocked to end the game.

When I say Mahomes doesn’t lose, he just runs out of time, I have the facts on my side.

In the 24 wins, that’s when he has put teams away late if the game was still close (one score). One of the six games that wasn’t close was Cleveland in 2018. The Browns could do no better than a 13-point deficit a play into the fourth quarter, which Mahomes immediately answered with a field goal and a 37-21 final.

In the other 18 games, Mahomes led seven game-winning drives. Four times he extended the lead to two scores. Mahomes ran out the clock fully four times, and ran it down from over four minutes to just 23 seconds in Baltimore this year.

The only two teams to stop him were Denver (2019) and that Carolina game I’ve talked about already. He still threw two touchdowns in the fourth quarter against Carolina, but it was that late three-and-out that could have been costly if the Panthers were able to get a closer field goal attempt. Against Denver, Mahomes didn’t score in the quarter, but the Broncos’ offense was inept and by the time they got it last, only four seconds remained for a 4QC/GWD opportunity.

If you want to beat Mahomes, you can’t let him have the ball last. End things with your own four-minute offense. With Cleveland’s running game and Mayfield’s recent emphasis on running more, they could do that.

Conclusion

So there it is. To beat Mahomes and the Chiefs, you just have to score a lot of points, gain a lot of yards on the ground and overall, hope for some breaks in the turnovers and penalties departments, and even then you better deny him the ball at the end of the game.

Got all that, Cleveland? I hope it is an exciting shootout and not a rout, but I just do not see the Browns pulling it off unless the Chiefs have another very uncharacteristic performance.

If my final score looks familiar, it’s because I picked it on purpose.

Final: Chiefs 38, Browns 33

Same Old Browns? No, Same Old Steelers

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

When Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster brushed off Cleveland as being the “same old Browns” leading up to Sunday night’s game, he seemed to forget which team he was still playing for.

No team in the NFL keeps the status quo in check like the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s why if they’re not playing down to the competition in a small game like the Bengals in Week 15, they come out looking unprepared for playoff games as well. They expect to win on the strength of their history alone when the other teams have Tim Tebow or Blake Bortles at quarterback or are missing their head coach and could not practice in person due to COVID-19 like the Browns just faced.

Following an 11-0 start, Pittsburgh spent a whole month watching its offense decay and fail to score 20 points. While defenses had caught up to arguably the most one-dimensional offense in NFL history, the Steelers did nothing to make any changes to it. One fortunate second-half comeback against the Colts was enough for the Steelers to blow off Week 17 and rest the stars for the playoff run to come.

“The standard is the standard” is head coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite phrase, and he now has as many one-and-done playoff losses (five) as he has seasons not making the tournament at all. Pittsburgh’s idea of analytics still looks like a random flip of the coin for when Tomlin decides to go for a fourth down or punt like a coward. Not to mention this team had two decades to figure out how to slow down the New England offense and never really did. After going 0-3 to Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen since 2018, it is hard to believe the Steelers would have reached the Super Bowl anyway this season.

Unlike across the state in Philadelphia, winning that Super Bowl in his second season way back in 2008 has given Tomlin incredible job security and a shield from criticism for all the shortcomings since. Ben Roethlisberger winning his second Super Bowl in that second Tomlin season should have did the same, but off-field incidents from over a decade ago always left him as the scapegoat in Pittsburgh, even getting the brunt of the blame when the team had public falling outs with star players Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.

With JuJu’s ill-advised bulletin board material as the latest proof, Tomlin still has no control over the egos in his locker room. The standard is the standard, and for Tomlin and Roethlisberger, the Steelers painted their masterpiece of disappointment and embarrassment on Sunday night, losing 48-37 to the rival Browns, a team Ben was 24-2-1 against and a team the Steelers had never lost to at home since he was drafted in 2004.

For perhaps the last time in the Roethlisberger era, let’s recap where the Steelers fell short on Sunday night.

For recaps of the other five wild card games, click here.

The Worst First Quarter in Playoff History

If you asked me how the 2020 Steelers were going to lose in the playoffs, I would have predicted a Buffalo rematch next week that looked like the Sunday night meeting the Bills won 26-15. One where the Steelers just didn’t have it offensively and the defense couldn’t get Josh Allen off the field enough. Or something uglier with turnovers like the Cincinnati loss, except against a better quality opponent and quarterback. All in all, a game where Roethlisberger was too inaccurate, and they sucked on third down and threw an obscene amount of passes way short of the sticks with too many drops. You know, like the whole month of struggles we recently saw from this team.

I never would have imagined the Steelers would essentially repeat their 2017 AFC divisional loss, 45-42, to the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. After last week’s 24-22 loss in Cleveland with most of the stars out, this game could not have gone any differently from that one. It looks far worse when Browns coach Kevin Stefanski wasn’t even there because of COVID and this team had not practiced all week.

Simply put, this game was decided in the first quarter, if not the first snap from scrimmage.

Center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball well over Roethlisberger’s head and the Browns were able to ultimately recover it for a touchdown just 14 seconds into the game. It’s the first NFL game to start with a fumble by the center since Super Bowl XLVIII, except Denver only gave up a safety to Seattle that time. It seems likely these are the only two times this has happened in NFL playoff history.

The Steelers only appeared to implode from there. Roethlisberger overthrew a short pass under pressure, and it was intercepted at midfield. The defense had a chance to force a three-and-out, but Jarvis Landry caught a short pass on 3rd-and-6 and turned it into a 40-yard touchdown. Landry gained 30 YAC on the play. His season high for YAC on a catch was 23 yards.

Pittsburgh allowed two 40-yard touchdown passes in this game with YAC totals of 30 and 42 yards. The Browns had one such play all season and that was 40 YAC after a 35-yard deep ball to Donovan Peoples-Jones. These were short throws, including a screen later in the game to Nick Chubb. In the regular season, Pittsburgh’s defense only allowed two touchdown passes with at least 15 YAC. They matched that in this one playoff game.

Down 14-0, Pittsburgh’s short-yardage rushing woes struck as Derek Watt was held to no gain on 3rd-and-1. At this point I joked about a long Chubb TD run coming next.

I was close. Chubb started the next drive with runs of 17 and 20 yards. Kareem Hunt finished the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run. The Browns led 21-0 with 4:40 left in the first quarter as the Steelers looked completely lost and unready to play this game in every phase.

To this point, Roethlisberger only made one mistake with the panicked throw getting picked off, yet he was down 21-0 already. I don’t feel that’s being taken into consideration at all when people criticize him for this game. The Steelers were getting dominated on every side of the ball at this point. It was only down 21-0 when he made another mistake that wasn’t even all on him. Diontae Johnson’s drops showed up again as a pass that was a little high above his head clanged off his hands and went to a defender for a second interception. Roethlisberger could have gotten the ball down a little, but there was bad luck to that pick.

That set up the Browns for a 15-yard touchdown drive capped off by Hunt again. Cleveland led 28-0 after the first quarter, a differential that has only happened 14 times since 1940. The only playoff game to start 28-0 after a quarter was when the 6-6-2 Oilers were crushed 56-7 by the Raiders in 1969. Out of the 14 teams to fall behind by 28 through a quarter, only the Steelers last night were able to lose by fewer than 17 points. But the point is they all lost.

You just cannot expect to turn the ball over three times and get outscored 28-0 in the first quarter and still win that game. Pittsburgh outscored the Browns in each of the last three quarters and 37-20 overall, but that first 15 minutes killed the season.

Look, games in this league almost never start out this dominant. We have seen plenty of mismatches over the years (think Chiefs-Jets this season), but 28-0 after a quarter is really hard to do, and it is especially hard to imagine in a playoff game between division rivals. This is only the fourth game where it happened between two teams who finished the season with a winning record.

However, it was just recently when the Browns led the Titans by 31 points at halftime and only won that game by six. So you had to figure the Steelers had a chance at a comeback. It would have been the ultimate Cleveland collapse, but the main reason that didn’t happen was the Pittsburgh defense failed to show up.

Pittsburgh’s Fraudulent Defense Exposed Again

In their last 78 games, the Steelers defense has registered a sack and/or takeaway in 76 of them. The only two games where they didn’t get a sack or turnover were their last two playoff games at home against the Jaguars and the Browns. Cleveland was even missing multiple starters on the offensive line.

Pittsburgh was on a streak of 31 straight games without allowing 30 points, tied for the second-longest streak in the salary cap era (1994-2020). That is really impressive when half the games came this year, the highest-scoring season in NFL history. Of course, Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t facing Jeff Driskel, Jake Luton, Carson Wentz, Garrett Gilbert, or Ryan Finley last night. They allowed 48 to the talented Browns, the most Pittsburgh has allowed since the Jaguars scored 45 in the 2017 playoffs.

Are you sensing a theme yet?

Cleveland only scored 7 points in Pittsburgh in Week 6 with Baker Mayfield having perhaps the worst game of his career. But he now has his first 200-yard passing game in six starts against the Steelers. I already mentioned the two big YAC plays for 40-yard touchdowns that were so uncharacteristic for the Cleveland offense and Pittsburgh defense this year. Throw in not getting a sack or turnover and you are looking at a flat-out choke by this supposedly great defense. If you told me T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward sat out this one too like they did in Week 17, I’d have believed it. They were ghosts last night.

Pittsburgh’s defense needed some kind of splash play to get this comeback going last night. It never came. After the Steelers got on the board in the second quarter, the defense had a chance to force a three-and-out and get the ball back. Instead, Mayfield scrambled for a first down on third-and-6 and turned that into a 64-yard touchdown drive. The offense was able to muster a field goal despite only having 28 seconds to work with. Pittsburgh trailed 35-10 at halftime.

The third quarter was Pittsburgh’s best defensively, but still no sacks or turnovers. They forced three punts and two three-and-outs. But when the defense had to get the ball back in the fourth quarter, they may have saved their worst for last, which is shades of the Jacksonville game all over again. Mayfield led an 80-yard touchdown drive with half of it coming on the Chubb screen. Cleveland led 42-23. A quick touchdown made it 42-29 with 11:08 left, so the game wasn’t over. Again, the defense was a major letdown, allowing the Browns to hold the ball for 6:40, gain four first downs, and add a field goal to make it 45-29 with 4:28 left. At that point you’re in total miracle territory and the game is essentially over. Roethlisberger threw his fourth interception with 3:16 left and the rest of the scoring was just going through the motions.

This talk that the Browns were conservative so Pittsburgh’s defense couldn’t get after them is bunk. Ryan Finley threw 13 passes against the Steelers in Week 15 and they still sacked him twice that night. Mayfield didn’t have to air it out 50 times or anything, but he still threw 34 passes and had multiple linemen out. There were chances to make plays for this defense. None were capitalized.

The loss was so eerily similar to the 2017 Jacksonville loss. In that one, Pittsburgh’s offense continued to score and make a game of it, but the Jaguars also scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. You can’t keep matching scores in a huge comeback attempt.

This disappointing defense is par for the course for Pittsburgh in the playoffs. While the offense tends to take the blame, the defense is usually the superior unit (top 10 ranked) in the regular season, only to fail in the playoffs.

  • 2004 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed season-high 41 points to Patriots in 41-27 AFC Championship Game loss (pick-six included) after never allowing more than 30 points during season. Zero takeaways.
  • 2007 (No. 2 scoring D): Allowed at least 29 points to Jaguars for the second time at home, losing 31-29 in the wild card (pick-six included). Allowed a game-winning drive.
  • 2010 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed second-most points of season (31; including pick-six) to Green Bay in 31-25 Super Bowl loss. Zero takeaways.
  • 2011 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed most points since Week 1, including a game-losing touchdown one play into overtime, in 29-23 loss to Tim Tebow (316 yards on 10 completions) and the Broncos.
  • 2016 (No. 10 scoring D): Allowed season-high 36 points in AFC Championship Game loss to Patriots (36-17). Zero takeaways.
  • 2017 (No. 7 scoring D): Allowed season-high 45 points (including fumble return) to Jaguars in 45-42 loss in AFC divisional. Zero takeaways.
  • 2020 (No. 3 scoring D): Allowed season-high 48 points (including fumble return) to Browns after not allowing 30 points all season in 48-37 loss in wild card. Zero takeaways.

Sure, there was a return touchdown allowed in five of those games, but even without them the defense was still at or near season-worst performance levels in these playoff losses.

Note the last three losses in particular. The Steelers are the only team in NFL history to have three straight playoff games where they allowed at least 36 points and had zero takeaways. No other team has even done it in two straight playoff games. This comes as no surprise, but teams who allow 36 points and don’t get a takeaway are 0-38 in the playoffs.

Where are the Takeaways?

I wrote this about the Steelers in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 and it still holds true today:

Fans often complain that “we beat ourselves more than the opponent did,” but Steelers fans have the best statistical evidence for this claim. Since 2004, the Steelers are the only team to actually outgain their opponents in yardage (plus-748) in games lost. But they’ve shot themselves in the foot with the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.6) in losses since 2004.

Updating these numbers through 2020 and last night, the Steelers are still the only team with a positive yardage differential (+80) in their losses. Every other team has been outgained by thousands of yards, including Cleveland (-14,419) at the very bottom.

But Pittsburgh still has the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.46) in losses since 2004. So when they lose, they usually have a lot of turnovers and not many takeaways.

Since 2002, there have been 16 playoff games where a team scored more than 24 points despite at least three turnovers. The Steelers have five of those 16 games and the only other team with more than one is the Colts (two).

Sloppy, mistake-filled starts have been a problem in the postseason during the Roethlisberger era. Still, the team tends to rebound from those starts and still make a game of it. There’s also this fact:

It’s worth noting that the Steelers rested Roethlisberger and other starters in Week 17 in 2007, 2017, and 2020. There are always counter examples to the rest vs. rust debate, but I cannot help but think some players are hurt more than they are helped from the rest. I get why teams do it, but I have never been a fan of it.

This list also means Roethlisberger is the only quarterback in NFL history to lose multiple playoff games after scoring at least 37 points, and both were as a home favorite. He has thrown for 970 yards and nine touchdowns in his last two playoff games and lost them both. He also threw five interceptions in the two games, so it’s not all been good obviously, but there were positives last night once he got in a rhythm in the second quarter. This offense had not produced such a game like this since late in 2018.

However, I knew late in the first half that he wouldn’t get the help he needed to make this comeback go to completion.

Sure enough, he didn’t. This goes back to a point I made during the 2018 season about Rodgers and Brady. You can’t have a huge comeback without stopping the other team too, and that part is not on the quarterback.

When the 1992 Bills with Frank Reich at quarterback made the all-time comeback of 32 points against the Oilers, they got a lot of help from the special teams. Down 35-3, a bad kickoff set them up at the 50 for a touchdown drive. The special teams then recovered an onside kick to set up another touchdown. Defense forced a three-and-out, a bad punt, and Buffalo again only had to drive 59 yards for a third touchdown to make it 35-24. Then Warren Moon threw an interception to set the Bills up at the Houston 23, leading to another touchdown. There’s your splash play and short field combo to really have a ballgame again at 35-31 with 17 minutes left. I won’t recap the rest, but it was really getting that onside kick and an interception that made that comeback feasible.

Now flash forward to Super Bowl LI, which Sunday night was starting to look like at one point. The Steelers were actually well ahead of New England’s pace in trying to make this 25-point comeback in the second half. Roethlisberger threw a touchdown on fourth down to make it 35-23 with 2:57 left in the third quarter.

In LI, the Patriots were still down 28-3 to Atlanta with the ball at that point. Five minutes into the fourth quarter, Brady took a sack on third down and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal. They trailed 28-12 with 9:44 left, but things still looked dire. That’s when the real play of the game happened and Matt Ryan lost the ball on a strip-sack on a 3rd-and-1 that never should have been a pass play. Not only was it a stop and turnover, but it set Brady up 25 yards away from the end zone with 8:24 left.

There is the huge break that quarterbacks not named Brady just don’t get in this league.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh had possession to start the fourth quarter of a 35-23 game, but faced a 4th-and-1 decision at their own 46. It’s a shame this was after a commercial break, because Roethlisberger should have pulled a Peyton Manning and waved off the punt team to go for this. But Tomlin sent them in, tried to draw the defense offsides, and eventually took a delay of game penalty and punted. Pure cowardice. The worst punt yet, and this is the same coach who punted on 4th-and-1 early in the game and on fourth down inside the Cleveland 40 down 28-0 in the second quarter.

So the coach didn’t have Ben’s back, and then the defense showed it didn’t either. Instead of getting a Baker strip-sack like Brady got, they allowed an 80-yard touchdown drive, half of it coming on the Chubb screen. That made it 42-23 with 12:32 left. It should have been over there, but a quick Pittsburgh touchdown kept it alive at 42-29. Again, this is where the defense is supposed to get the huge turnover like Brady (or Frank f’n Reich) got, right? Nope, Ben must not have willed it to be. Instead, the defense let a long field goal drive happen.

By the time Ben got the ball back, he had 4:28 left and a 16-point deficit from his own 25. The Patriots gave Brady a 16-point deficit and the ball back at the Atlanta 25 with 8:24 left.

There is the difference right there. It has nothing to do with any “clutch” nonsense or the idea that Brady was playing better (he wasn’t). It’s all circumstances out of the quarterback’s control that favored Brady and allowed him a much better shot to win the game. You know, the advantage he tends to have over every other QB in NFL history. And that’s without even getting into Atlanta later having a first down at the New England 22 and punting the ball back.

Had Roethlisberger been able to start that drive with just over four minutes left at the Cleveland 25, then I would actually give a damn if he threw a pick or not. That would at least keep the game winnable. But it’s not wrong to downplay that bad throw with just over three minutes left when the game clearly was in all-time miracle territory.

If you want to bash Ben for that fourth pick, then you better do the same for Brady when he threw a pick down by 14 in Denver (2005) or the two he tossed down 15 points against the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship Game.

Is This the End?

Wherever the Steelers go from this one, the choices are obviously quite limited with a quarterback who will be 39 in 2021.

Roethlisberger had a game that will stand out in the record books with infamy, especially if it turns out to be his final playoff game. His 47 completions are an NFL record for any game, regular season or postseason. Roethlisberger threw 68 passes and did not take a single sack – only Drew Bledsoe (1994 Patriots vs. Vikings) has done better than that with 70 attempts in an overtime game.

His final completion, a 7-yard touchdown, put him at 501 yards, extending his record with a fourth 500-yard passing game. However, this is the first time the Steelers lost when he threw for 500 yards. Roethlisberger now has five games with 40 completions in his career, and the Steelers are 3-2 in those games. No other quarterback has more than two games with 500 yards or 40 completions.

The Steelers have a lot of tough roster decisions to make. With the way several players broke into tears after the game, it sure felt like the last hurrah, the end of an era in Pittsburgh. With the Ravens still playing great and the Browns now a playoff winner, this could be the last big game for the Steelers for quite some time.

If only they could have stepped up for the moment and embraced how precious these opportunities are, then maybe they would still be playing this week instead of embarrassing themselves with that first quarter that will go down as the worst any team has had in the playoffs.

Last night did not scar me. I have evolved my fandom enough to where I don’t need the hometown team to be great to keep my interest in the league. But watching the Steelers the last couple of decades lose so many big games by shooting themselves in the foot early, crawling back to make a game of it, provide some hope, then still seeing them lose has probably left a big mark in how I analyze the game.

I’m probably not giving enough credit to Cleveland for this performance with a shorthanded roster and without the coach I’m voting for as Coach of the Year. The Browns clearly wanted it more from the start and were playing great on every side of the ball, overwhelming the Steelers in a way we just don’t see in this competitive league. They’ll have a shot in Kansas City next week.

Pittsburgh’s last playoff win was in Kansas City in the 2016 season. They won 18-16 behind six field goals. The Chiefs immediately drafted Patrick Mahomes in the first round in 2017, and the rest is history. The AFC is moving on with teams like Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo and Cleveland headed in exciting, new directions.

Pittsburgh must be open to change or it stands to get left behind and fade into obscurity, much like the Patriots this year and their roster of nameless gray faces. But make the wrong moves, and “same old Steelers” might sound like a nostalgic compliment in the near future.

C’est la vie.

NFL 2020 Wild Card Sunday Previews

If one triple-header of NFL playoff action is not enough, we get two this year with Ravens-Titans looking like the highlight of the weekend on paper. All three games on Sunday are rematches from earlier this season, including two games that went to overtime.

That led me to a little digging. What happens in a playoff rematch from a game that went to overtime? I found all 17 examples since 1990. The team that won in overtime is 11-6 in the playoff rematch, so maybe that is good news for the Titans and Saints this weekend despite the Titans being an underdog again.

Click here for my three previews of Saturday’s games.

Ravens at Titans (+3)

BAL OFFENSE VS. TEN DEFENSE

I think this is a great, almost necessary matchup for the Ravens to get over the hump in the postseason. Last year, I wrote a rather prescient preview for how the Titans could pull off the upset in Baltimore, noting some potential rust for the rested Ravens, dropped passes on key downs, maybe a tipped interception, and Ryan Tannehill hitting a deep ball to open an early lead. All of those things happened, and the Ravens were down 14-0 quickly before losing 28-12. Lamar Jackson set an NFL record with 83 total plays (passes/sacks/runs) in that game, but it only led to a career-low 12 points for his Ravens.

In fact, Jackson has led the Ravens to at least 20 points in 36 of his 39 career starts, but only 17 and 12 points in his two home playoff losses. If the Bills and Steelers win this week, Jackson could be starting this postseason run against Tennessee and Kansas City, two teams he is 0-5 against so far.

So if this is going to be a revenge tour, then it sets up nicely. Baltimore is 5-0 since Jackson returned from his COVID-19 diagnosis. The competition has not been strong, but Jackson is back to efficient passing (8.09 YPA, 11 TD, 3 INT) and he’s rushing for 86 yards a game at 7.68 YPC. Baltimore has been lighting up the scoreboard and finished a second straight season with the highest scoring differential (+165) in the league. The 2020 Ravens are the 10th team since the merger to win at least nine games by 14+ points. The ninth team to do it was Baltimore a year ago.

You cannot be in this historic company and go one-and-done to Mike Vrabel two years in a row. Drawing the Tennessee defense is a dream for Jackson. Here is where the Titans rank in 2020 (asterisk denotes worst among playoff teams this year):

  • 27th in points per drive allowed*
  • 30th in yards per drive allowed*
  • 30th in touchdowns per drive allowed*
  • 29th in forcing three-and-out drives*
  • 25th in yards per play allowed*
  • 30th in first downs allowed*
  • 22nd in net yards per pass attempt*
  • 32nd in sack rate*
  • 31st in pressure rate*
  • 32nd in third down conversion rate* (worst since 1991)
  • 7th in takeaways per drive
  • 30th in red zone touchdown rate

Tennessee is the worst defense in the playoffs, and yes, that third down conversion rate of 51.9% is the worst season mark since the stat started being tracked in 1991. They’re the only team over 50%.

Turnovers are about the only way the Titans can do well on defense in this matchup, but Baltimore’s offense has only turned it over multiple times in three games this season, and two of those were against the Steelers.

In the Week 11 meeting, won 30-24 in overtime by Tennessee, the Ravens were 9/15 on third down with one interception on 10 drives. The problem was in the red zone where the Ravens were 1-for-4 at scoring touchdowns, including a late field goal to force overtime where a touchdown likely would have won the game. What happened in the playoff upset a year ago? Again, the Ravens were 1-for-4 in the red zone. They have to do better down there, but lately the Ravens have been scoring at will on teams.

Baltimore is coming off only the second 400-yard rushing game in the NFL in the last 60 years. We know the Ravens are going to run the ball well in this game, but to fully take advantage of this poor Tennessee defense, Jackson will have to throw well too.

I think he can do it this time. If not, then the Ravens will have taken two seasons where they outscored opponents by 414 points and turned it into zero playoff wins.

TEN OFFENSE VS. BAL DEFENSE

Given my takedown of the Tennessee defense, I better give a lot of credit to the offense for this 11-5 record. That’s easy to do. Ryan Tannehill proved 2019 was not just a fluke as he finished with the best full season of his career in leading one of the league’s top offenses. Derrick Henry rushed for 2,027 yards as he is practically on a one-man mission to prove that running backs matter, or at least they do in Tennessee. I think I would vote for him as the Offensive Player of the Year. Corey Davis even had a career year and A.J. Brown is still very good.

Tennessee’s excellent 6-1 record in close games is almost due entirely to the offense this year. Tannehill led the league in comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (six) with Henry scoring two game-winning touchdown runs in overtime games. The only failed comeback was against Pittsburgh after Stephen Gostkowski missed a makeable field goal that would have forced overtime.

In the Week 11 meeting in Baltimore, both teams looked offensively challenged at the half. Jackson had 54 yards passing, Tannehill had 42 yards passing, and Henry only had 13 carries for 37 yards. But the Titans are so committed to sticking with their formula of a play-action attack and feeding Henry that they turned things around and won that game with 30 points. Tannehill finished with 259 yards and Henry rushed for 133 yards, saving his 29-yard burst for overtime to win the game.

The Titans have to be thinking at least 30 points in this one again to win it, which isn’t out of question when the team has scored as much in 10 of the 16 games this season. The Titans are 2-4 when they don’t score 30 points this season.

Baltimore actually finished the season No. 2 in points allowed, but that involved a lot of feasting on putrid offenses this year, including six points in two games against the Bengals. We’ve seen the Ravens allow 30 to Tennessee, 34 to Kansas City, and the Browns lost that 47-42 game on a Monday night that I would deem the Game of the Year.

I think a top offense can score well on the Ravens this year.

I like both offenses in this game and apparently so does Vegas as the game has a total of 54.5 points. What it comes down to for me is that the Tennessee defense is so bad, and there is also a big gap in special teams as well between these teams. The Ravens are No. 2 in DVOA while the Titans are 28th. We have already seen special teams almost cost the Titans a win on opening night against Denver, Gostkowski screwed them over against the Steelers, and they had the worst game (aside from Chargers-Patriots) on special teams this season against the Colts in a loss at home.

FiveThirtyEight sees this as the most even game of the weekend with the Ravens at 57% to win and an Elo point spread of -2. I can buy that given Baltimore’s past struggles in big games and against a team that can score in bunches.

The whole “Ravens are the team no one wants to play” thing is usually just hype, but I actually believe it this time for Baltimore. I wouldn’t want to play this team right now even if I was Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or Kansas City. That doesn’t necessarily mean I am picking the Ravens to go all the way this year, but the way they can run the ball is just something you don’t have to deal with when you play other teams. Henry is great and will probably go for over 100 again, but chances are the Ravens as a team will outrush him and win this game. So that is where I am going with this one.

Final: Ravens 31, Titans 24

Bears at Saints (-10)

So in the very first year of the new playoff format, we had a Chicago team back into the No. 7 seed with an 8-8 record (thanks, Kliff), and a 12-4 Saints team that had a very nice season has to play them instead of enjoying a bye as they would have in the past. Cool.

My new playoff contempt aside, I guess it’s not the worst matchup in the world, and the 10-point spread is interesting. I’ll just say it would be a damn shame if the final game of Drew Brees’ career was a home playoff loss to Mitchell Trubisky and an 8-8 No. 7 seed. FiveThirtyEight sees this as the blowout of the week with the Saints at 85% win probability and Elo spread of -12. I think it could be closer than that. The Saints are not exactly known for easy playoff wins.

I watched a lot of the Week 8 meeting in Chicago live. The Saints were down 13-3 early, didn’t have their wideouts (not even Emmanuel Sanders), Brees ended up throwing a touchdown pass to Taysom Hill that put the Saints up 10 in the fourth quarter, but Nick Foles still forced overtime and even had a chance to win the game. But the Saints pulled through with a 26-23 win. It was probably the best game Foles had this year for the Bears, and as good as any game offensively for the team through 10 weeks before the bye.

Now the Bears are here with Trubisky, who has started the last six games. The Bears started this run by scoring at least 25 points in each game, a streak this team had not seen since the 1995 season with Erik Kramer. Was Trubisky great in this stretch? No, but it is clear he was better than what Foles was giving Matt Nagy and what Trubisky was doing at the start of the season. Running back David Montgomery has especially blown up with 99.7 rushing yards per game and 5.16 YPC over the last six games. That is quite the change for a guy who averaged 54.4 yards and 3.65 YPC in his first 25 games. Then Allen Robinson is still excellent, Jimmy Graham has started catching touchdowns again, and Darnell Mooney can get open. It is not an offense without talent. The results were just terrible for most of this season.

Then Sunday against Green Bay happened. The Bears moved the ball somewhat well, but only finished with 16 points after going 1-for-5 in the red zone. The offense also had two turnovers that set up the Packers for touchdown drives inside the 26-yard line. That was a bummer performance to end the regular season, but thanks to Arizona’s late-season collapse, the Bears are still in this tournament.

I am naturally skeptical of Trubisky given his full history. I thought he played terrible in the first Green Bay game and padded his stats in garbage time. He was much better against Detroit and Houston, but those are two of the most horrific defenses in a season filled with bad defenses. Minnesota and Jacksonville were not much better this year. Then it was Green Bay again and I noticed Trubisky had a really high completion percentage deep into the game, but not a lot of yards or points from it. Then I realized he completed 70.1% of his passes during these last six games and almost 74% over the last five games, which is uncharacteristic for him.

When I also noticed the Bears tried to convert six fourth downs against the Packers (they got five of them but not the crucial one in fourth quarter), that made me think about failed completions. Those are the plays where you complete a pass, but it doesn’t gain at least 45% of the needed yards for a first down on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% on third and fourth down. What if Trubisky was just dinking and dunking for hollow completions to pad his completion percentage, but not actually helping the offense? He finished 20th in QBR and 24th in DVOA after all.

To my surprise, Trubisky’s failed completion rate in 2020 was 15.6%, the lowest in the NFL, beating out No. 2 Patrick Mahomes (15.9%) and No. 3 Josh Allen (16.4%). Aaron Rodgers (21.5%) was only 11th and Brees is 23rd (24.7%). Furthermore, Trubisky did much better than Foles in this metric. Alex Smith (32.7%) and Dwayne Haskins (35.1%) were last in the league playing in the same Washington offense, but just ahead of them was Foles at 32.2%.

That is interesting to me because there are plenty of other metrics that show the impact of Chicago’s offensive system and supporting cast on the quarterback’s passing numbers.

  • Trubisky’s average pass was thrown 7.9 yards compared to 7.8 for Foles.
  • Trubisky’s average completed air yards was 5.1 to 5.3 for Foles.
  • Trubisky had 3.1% of his passes dropped compared to 3.0% for Foles – only Kyler Murray (2.5%) was lower [source: Pro Football Reference].
  • Trubisky ranked fourth in the league by throwing 21.2% of his passes into tight windows while Foles was ranked right behind him at 20.8% according to Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness rate.

Suddenly, I was feeling better about Trubisky after seeing this, then I saw one more stat on Pro Football Reference. Trubisky finished 15th this year with 5.4 YAC/completion; Foles finished 35th (dead last) at 3.5 YAC/completion. Basically, the big YAC plays that existed in Chicago’s offense only seemed to happen for Trubisky. Of Chicago’s 20 completions with at least 15 YAC, Trubisky threw 14 of them compared to six for Foles. Trubisky had seven passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage that gained 15+ YAC; Foles had two.

Oh, and there is also this on play-action passing:

Foles used play-action on 18.6% of his passes this season, ranked 24th in the league. His play-action YPA was 8.07. Trubisky used it more often than anyone but Ryan Tannehill and his YPA was 8.31.

Now things started to make more sense. Trubisky was taking advantage of play-action looks, superior rushing help from Montgomery, and better YAC plays from his receivers during a four-game surge against trash defenses that finished 28th, 29th, 30th, and 32nd in points per drive allowed. Wow, better pay this man $140M over four years if he beats the Saints this weekend.

Okay, so there is no denying that Trubisky can move better than Foles. He can scramble and pick up some first downs that way. He had a lower pressure rate and almost identical sack rate to Foles, who looked like a statue more than ever this year. Maybe some of those YAC plays could be credited to Trubisky’s skills as well while someone like Foles throws a lot of hero balls that may not lend themselves well to YAC. It is a little easier for Nagy to run an offense with a quarterback who can actually move.

But am I sold on Trubisky’s “rebirth” here or his prospects in even just this game? No, I am not. The Saints just intercepted the Carolina quarterbacks five times on Sunday and won 33-7 with a running back room they signed off the streets this weekend. Ty Montgomery still rushed for over 100 yards. The New Orleans defense notched five sacks of Foles in Week 8 too, so the pass rush could be good again for the Saints in this one.

Basically, the Chicago path to victory is the same as it always is: defense/special teams kick ass, the run game works, and the quarterback doesn’t screw things up. The Saints will be lucky to get Alvin Kamara back in time after his COVID-19 infection. He was huge as a receiver in the last meeting with the wideouts not available. At least Sanders is back now, but Michael Thomas’ status is still iffy as it has been most of this year. The Saints have learned to play without him.

This is not your classic, dominant Saints offense because of the injuries and Brees’ age taking even more off the deep ball, but this offense still scores. In fact, the 2020 Saints are the sixth team in NFL history to score at least 21 points in all 16 regular season games. The first five teams to do that all reached the Conference Championship Game and three advanced to the Super Bowl. Now none of them had to play a No. 7 seed on Wild Card Weekend, but here we are.

I guess I could pick the Saints to cover with a 27-16 win, but I’m just going to add a touchdown to Chicago’s total to make it sound more interesting. Will it actually be that close? Eh, you probably didn’t think the last meeting would have two double-digit leads blown and go to overtime. Besides, wouldn’t it just be so fitting for the Bears (and Rams) to win so Tom Brady can get a home playoff game as a No. 5 seed and not have to worry about the New Orleans team that spanked him twice this year?

It sure would be nice for the Saints to send Brees off with a second Super Bowl. The defense showing up big against one of the worst offenses in this postseason would be a good start.

Final: Saints 27, Bears 23

Browns at Steelers (-6)

The last time the Browns were in the playoffs, they went to Heinz Field and blew a 17-point lead to the 2002 Steelers. The last time the Browns were an 11-5 playoff team and opened as a 3.5-point underdog, they lost 29-9 in the divisional round in Pittsburgh to the 1994 Steelers.

So here we are again. The Browns are 11-5 and finally back in the playoffs, but they have to beat a Pittsburgh team they just squeezed by on Sunday, 24-22, despite the Steelers resting several of their best players. The Browns opened as a 3.5-point underdog, but the spread has only been going up since a COVID outbreak has jacked up the team’s preparation this week. They have not been practicing in person, multiple players are on the COVID list, and head coach Kevin Stefanski is out with COVID.

I think the Stefanski news is rather significant. He should be the favorite for the Coach of the Year award and he was the play-caller for his team. This literally has stacked the odds against the Browns, who are trying to end a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh, which includes a 38-7 loss in Week 6. The Browns have not won in Pittsburgh since 2003, the season before Ben Roethlisberger was drafted.

Trying to compare the first two meetings this season is not easy. When the Steelers won 38-7 in Week 6, it was arguably the worst game of Baker Mayfield’s NFL career. He was rattled by this defense early. On Sunday, he played better, but a unit largely comprised of backups still got four sacks and held him under 200 passing yards. Mayfield compensated by rushing for a career-high 44 yards.

In five games against the Steelers, Mayfield is 2-3, has never passed for 200 yards, and Sunday was the first time he scored 24 points. I like to think a Pittsburgh defense that gets back T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward will be in better shape to defend him this week. Watt has been dominant this year and Heyward is the third key component of the pass rush along with Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers will be without cornerback Joe Haden (COVID) again, but the Browns have not had any receiver break 60 yards on Pittsburgh this year. They’re not a high-volume passing team and without Odell Beckham Jr. available, it’s not really a matchup that Haden is desperately needed for. That comes potentially down the road with Stefon Diggs and the Bills.

Obviously, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt make for a great rushing duo, but the Steelers usually defend the run well. Chubb had a 47-yard touchdown run on Sunday after some poor tackling attempts by the Steelers, but his other 13 carries produced 61 yards. The Steelers can live with that as long as they don’t give up the huge play again. Mayfield’s rushing is usually not a problem, but it was Sunday. We’ll see if that’s part of the game plan again in his first playoff game where you do have to leave it all on the field really.

But I feel pretty confident about the Browns not being able to score more than the 24 points they had on Sunday, and it should be even less than that if we’re adding Watt and Heyward to the game.

As for the Pittsburgh offense, it’s a bit of a wild card even though we know what they’ll try to do in this one. It’s what they’ve done all year: tons of quick, short passes from the shotgun, virtually no play-action, great at not taking sacks, but a miniscule running game. The question is will they produce like the offense that started 10-0 and had a 28-24 comeback win on the Colts in Week 15, or will it look like the terrible month of offense where they couldn’t score 20 points? Will they add to their league-high 39 dropped passes?

Roethlisberger ended up having the greatest dink-and-dunk season in NFL history, as strange as that sounds.

I think I would trust the larger sample of games, but you never know how Pittsburgh will look on Sunday night. The week of rest should do Roethlisberger’s body well. He’ll return with Maurkice Pouncey at center and Eric Ebron at tight end, two more absences in Sunday’s game. The encouraging part is that Mason Rudolph just threw for 315 yards on this Cleveland defense on Sunday. Rudolph’s previous career high was 251 yards. Rudolph led two late touchdown drives, but failed on a two-point conversion pass to tie the game.

Rudolph attacked Cleveland deep multiple times and had three passes gain 40+ yards. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson played well. That should give Cleveland plenty to think about with how to defend this offense. Maybe they won’t just sit on the short routes like teams have been doing. The Steelers also seem to have figured out better routes and plays for JuJu Smith-Schuster in the last two games. While the Browns could get Denzel Ward back at corner, there is no one receiver to take away in this offense. Roethlisberger could throw to any of four wideouts or Ebron at any time. Trust me, I’ve been doing SGP every week since October on this team and you never know if it’s going to be a JuJu week, a Claypool week, a Diontae week, or an Ebron week.

We also know the Steelers cannot run the ball, becoming the first team in NFL history to win four games in a season without rushing for 50 yards. I am actually in favor of the idea of letting Josh Dobbs play backup quarterback and have a few packaged plays to run like he did on Sunday when he gained 20 yards on two plays. The Steelers didn’t do a whole lot more on the ground, but it is worth noting that James Conner’s last 100-yard rushing game was against Cleveland in Week 6.

The Browns beating the Steelers in an important game goes against all the football logic that I have learned over decades, so I cannot bring myself to make that pick for various reasons. Sure, I think the Steelers are vulnerable to losing to anyone at this point, but I also think if this team can combine the defense it has played most of the season with the productive scoring offense it had on the way to 10-0, then they could beat anyone this postseason, including on the road in Buffalo or Kansas City.

Final: Steelers 27, Browns 20

Next week we’ll talk about the record-setting offensive numbers in 2020, the first-round bye teams, and my picks for the rest of the playoffs.