Although there is technically a game with meaning on the line, the Pittsburgh Steelers are using this final week of the season as, at least in part, a chance to take a breath. Due to forces beyond their control, they were robbed of a full and proper bye week. Having already secured the AFC North and with minimal opportunity to advance their positioning—and no risk of losing it—the team is expected to rest or limit a number of starters.
The Cleveland Browns, meanwhile, face a prospect in which they are in a nearly win-or-go-home circumstance. They can guarantee a playoff berth via wildcard if they can beat the Steelers on Sunday, but there is a good chance that they do not qualify with a loss.
“We have to prepare just as we would any normal game because this is win or go home”, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said about potentially facing Pittsburgh’s reserves. “However they want to handle it, that is their choice. We are not controlling that. We have to control ourselves and how we prepare. They are still going to have the same scheme. It is not like they are going to change that up. We have to be able to go in and execute”.
Cleveland could have saved itself from this situation if the team had simply not laid an egg last week against a one-win New York Jets team. They would have been 11-4 and already guaranteed a playoff berth, but without any of their top wide receivers and down two linemen, the offense struggled—and Mayfield fumbled three times. He knows the pressure is on him now.
“I have had my back against the wall many a time in my life. I think I handle that type of stuff correctly”, he said. “Just one at a time until Sunday. I can’t win it right now. Have to move on from the game and work to get there”.
“These are the moments you ask for”, he added about the win-or-go-home stakes. “When you are little, you dream of playing in the games where it comes down to you have the ball in your hands and you want to take care of business and it comes down to the moments where you have to win. Yeah, I think so, but I think everybody also likes to be in these moments, as well”.
Since being drafted first overall in 2018, Mayfield has a 22-22 record as a starter—which, frankly, given their history over the past two decades, is good. But they are beyond the point of simply comparing themselves to their previous squalor. Failing to reach the postseason this year is a failure, plain and simple, even if they have their first winning record in more than a decade. The standards have shifted. No more grading on a curve.