11 games into the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns have a combined 11-11 record between them, the former with six wins, the former with five, but the Browns have already beaten the Steelers a couple of weeks ago.
Yet the match on Sunday is being talked about through the prism of the postseason, in more ways than one. At 6-5, the Steelers are currently poised, among four teams with the same record, to secure the second wildcard seed. The Browns can knock them off that perch and put themselves in the conversation as well, making both 6-6 with four games remaining.
Not only are there actual potential playoff implications involved, however; the atmosphere should match up to it, in spite of the absence of some of the game’s biggest stars, like Ben Roethlisberger, Myles Garrett, and likely others such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, with Maurkice Pouncey as well. All five of them are Pro Bowlers.
Not only is it a pivotal divisional matchup, it also falls behind the backdrop of the tumult of the last meeting, which is the reason that neither Garrett nor Pouncey are playing in this game. Both are currently serving suspensions for their actions in the final eight seconds.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said that he expects to step into “a playoff atmosphere” at Heinz Field Sunday. “This game means a lot to both teams. Looking at the bigger picture, we talk about the singular focus, but there is no hiding how much this one really means”.
Mayfield said that head coach Freddie Kitchens had a very simple message to his team this week when it came to discussing his group’s ability to keep their emotions in check. “It’s either you are the team”, he said. “Make a decision”.
While the Browns have a talented roster, they have also been among the most undisciplined teams in the NFL, and that has cost them games, or at least contributed to losses, which is why they, once again, are currently sitting deep into the season with a losing record.
They can climb to .500 with a second victory over Pittsburgh, however, and so they are doing everything in their power to keep their focus and composure. “We want to be tough and we want to play smart. That is because that is what usually wins football games. That entails a lot of different things, and that is just one aspect of it”, Kitchens said.
“You kind of have to put it all together to be successful. Sometimes when you have younger guys, it takes them a little time to put it together. I think we are starting to see some of those examples that they can focus and concentrate just on the task at hand. That is it”.