The final match-up of the Super Wild Card weekend pits two AFC North rivals against one another. Cleveland will travel to Pittsburgh to try and beat the Steelers for the second time in two weeks.Their 24-22 win over the Steelers secured their spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2002. That was only half of the battle as they will now need to replicate their result from last week over a mostly healthy Pittsburgh team. The Steelers rested several starters in week 17 including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. As we dive deeper we will look at some key positional match-ups, talk about these teams statistical standings, and make a final score prediction. Without any further delay, lets dive into this playoff preview!
Browns Strengths and Weaknesses
The Cleveland Browns secured a playoff spot for the first time in nearly 20 years with their win over Pittsburgh. They held off a fourth quarter surge from the Steelers including forcing an incomplete pass on a potentially game-tying two-point conversion attempt. Offensively they were led by Nick Chubb who ran for 108 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. They finished with a fairly balanced attack with 192 rushing yards and 196 pre-sack passing yards. Mayfield was about on par with his season average in terms of completion percentage and did not turn the ball over.
Their offense is predicated on the ability to run the ball successfully. They rank third in rushing yards, seventh in yards per carry, and fifth in rushing touchdowns. Right Tackle Jack Conklin, who was voted a first-team All-Pro in his first year with the team, is a big reason for that success.
They also have gotten the most out of their two-headed monster in the backfield. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have mostly split carries this year with Chubb leading the duo in both yards and touchdowns while Hunt has accrued 18 more carries. Considering the relatively mediocre stats from Mayfield it speaks to the work that the backs have done to drive this offense forward. Their biggest strength is on the ground without a doubt.
Rushing the passer has been relatively strong for the Browns this season. They rank 16th in sacks for, and Garrett ranks sixth individually with 12 sacks on the year. The bad news for the Browns is the Steelers stellar pass protection. Their offensive line has only allowed 14 sacks all season.
The team’s weaknesses fall on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Baker Mayfield has done enough to help this team win 11 games, but his stats are far from impressive. They rank 27th in completion percentage, 27th in total passing yards, and 15th in touchdowns. Those ranks tell me that he has done well in finishing off drives with his arm after the running game gets them within striking distance. He has only thrown eight interceptions and has been sacked 26 times. So while his personal stats don’t blow anyone away, he has not hurt his team in most games.
Cleveland’s biggest weakness is on the defensive side of the ball. Although Myles Garrett was a first-team All-Pro along with Conklin, the team defense as a whole leaves some to be desired. They rank top ten in completion percentage allowed and rushing yards allowed, but in the 20s in pass yards, pass TD, yards per carry, and points per game. While they aren’t Detroit Lions bad on defense (trust me, I know all too well how bad that is) they aren’t anywhere near elite.
Steelers Strengths and Weaknesses
Pittsburgh is the third seed for the AFC playoffs this year. But that doesn’t tell the story of how this team has played lately. They started the year 11-0 and with a decently favorable schedule looked like a team with a shot at 16-0. That dream came crashing down on Monday Night Football when they lost to the Washington Football Team 23-17. They finished the season losing four of their last five games, but four of those five games were against playoff teams.
Defense, defense, defense. Pittsburgh has relied on a strong defense in their most recent Super Bowl seasons. They had the the best defense in the 2008 regular season prior to winning Super Bowl XLIII and the fourth best defense before winning Super Bowl XL. This year they rank third in total team defense, and their sub-category statistics are just as strong. They rank first in completion percentage allowed, third in pass yards allowed, and fifth in passing touchdowns allowed. Pittsburgh also leads the league in sacks with 56 and T.J. Watt led the league individually with 15. The defense featured three All-Pro players. T.J Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick on the first team, and Cameron Heyward on the second team.
Most people think about how strong the Steelers pass rush is, but that isn’t the only strength of the defense. They also have a league-leading 18 interceptions this year. That stat tells the story of strong defensive backs, and a pass rush that is keeping the opposing quarterbacks from having time to make accurate throws.
For as strong as their defense has been, they have been a bit less impressive on offense. Big Ben had a decently strong season and needed to as they lacked any semblance of a rushing game. They ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards and yards per carry, and 28th in rushing touchdowns. For a strong offensive line like the Steelers have, their inability to run the ball is a bit head-scratching. They allowed a league-low 14 sacks, but weren’t able to get a consistent rushing game going. As reference, the top-two ball carriers for the Steelers top Nick Chubb’s rushing total by only 22 yards.
Final Score Prediction
Playoff teams who go deep in the playoffs are usually able to enhance their strengths and shore up their weaknesses enough to become a complete team by the Super Bowl. The winner of this game will be whoever can best shore up their weaknesses. Baker Mayfield and James Conner are my two x-factor players for this game. Both have the skills to be an impactful player for their team. Whichever of the two preforms better should lead their team to victory. With that being said, I think the Steelers defense will be too tough to overcome for the Browns and Pittsburgh will win 27-17. Who do you think will win? Let us know in the comments below. Check out our other playoff previews here and enjoy the slate of games today!