Playoff Game Preview

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Browns-Steelers: AFC Super Wild Card Weekend preview

Viewers can watch the broadcast live onNBC/Telemundo/Peacockat 8:15 p.m. ET on Sundayas well as stream live on the NFL app and Yahoo Sports app.

The Backstory

Just a few years ago, snow fell from the sky on an icy, gray day along the shore of Lake Erie. The woebegone Browns hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers, trotting out a talent-devoid group to slaughter in another meaningless, season-ending game.

No more. Five years after the Browns fell to the Steelers and entered yet another dark, directionless winter, Cleveland has a game that matters in January. For the first time since 2002, the Browns are back in the playoffs, and they'll meet a familiar foe in the same stadium in which they played their last playoff game nearly two decades ago.

On Sunday night, the Browns and Steelers will face off in a long-running rivalry that hasn't seen a showdown this important since 2002, when Pittsburgh came back to beat Cleveland at Heinz Field in a thrilling wild-card game. There's new fuel added to the fire, and this matchup brings the Browns their first chance to prove legitimacy in a very, very long time. They'll have to do so without key members lost to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski, and with the status of some important Browns remaining uncertain, meaning Cleveland is likely to hit the road with plenty of adversity already loaded onto the team buses.

Awaiting them is a Steelers squad ready to prove its own legitimacy after starting the 2020 season 11-0 before dropping three straight games, devolving from a high-powered offense to one that struggled to string together chain-moving plays. But the Steelers' offense awoke in a key moment in Week 16, erasing a multi-score deficit to take down Indianapolis and clinch an AFC North title that seemed assured just weeks prior before falling into uncertainty amid Pittsburgh's issues.

Now, the Steelers will host the rival Browns with a chance to start a potentially deep playoff run. The going won't be easy, even with Cleveland's COVID-19-related losses, but winning time has favored the Steelers in the past. Can they make that a reality once again in the new year? Sunday night will provide us with the answer.

Under pressure

Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns: We could bestow this unfortunate throne to Cleveland's substitute head coach, Mike Priefer, a local product who dreamed of coaching his favorite team and is now being called upon to step in for Stefanski. But let's be honest -- Priefer isn't taking the snaps and making the all-important decisions with the football on Sunday night.

Mayfield operates with supreme confidence bordering on cockiness, but he hasn't received an opportunity to perform under the brightest lights until now. Mayfield has shown flashes of franchise quarterback potential, stringing together three sparkling performances in terms of passer rating (116.7 or better) in three of four games between Weeks 12 and 15. When he's locked in, Mayfield is hard to stop, and he keeps Cleveland's offense moving. But Pittsburgh's third-ranked defense (in yards and points allowed per game) presents a mighty challenge to the third-year signal-caller, and it will be up to him to prove their first meeting -- a blowout loss to the Steelers in which Mayfield posted his worst passer rating of 2020 -- was nothing more than a fluke.

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Roethlisberger has struggled as of late, posting passer ratings below 66 in two of his final three regular-season affairs. Roethlisberger hasn't broken 83 in passer rating since Week 10, which feels like an eternity ago, but he resurfaced as a high-level passer in Pittsburgh's win over Indianapolis, capping that afternoon with a beautiful strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster for a game-winning score.

Which Roethlisberger will we get on Sunday night, with the nation watching? The one that tossed at least two touchdown passes in nine of his first 10 games in 2020? Or the one that couldn't avoid the game-changing failures in Pittsburgh's surprising losing streak? A lot will depend on how well Cleveland can get after the future Hall of Famer, and with Olivier Vernon ruled out due to injury, the Steelers will seemingly get a break. But the pressure lands squarely on the shoulders of Roethlisberger, who has a career's worth of experience performing in such scenarios and has answered the call more often than not.

Matchup to watch

Browns' offensive line vs. Steelers' defensive front: Cleveland wins by first establishing an advantage up front, creating space for its excellent backfield tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to run with force and fury. The Browns have seen a significant improvement in their offensive line in 2020, thanks to the direction of offensive line coach Bill Callahan and the massive leap taken by guard Wyatt Teller. But the Browns will be without veteran guard Joel Bitonio, a rock up front and one of Pro Football Focus' highest-rated guards in the entire NFL, as well as rookie center/guard Nick Harris, who filled in for Chris Hubbard following Hubbard's season-ending Week 15 knee injury and won't be able to step in for Bitonio. Callahan's coaching will factor into this one, as the Browns have to uncover a way to counter the efforts of Pittsburgh's top-notch defensive front, which features veterans Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, and NFL Defensive Player of the Year favorite T.J. Watt. It's quite a task for Cleveland, and it will be paramount for the Browns' blockers to find a way to patch their hole at left guard if they want to rely on Chubb and Hunt and have a realistic chance in this game.

Final thought

The Browns are fighting an uphill climb, but it's not a Sisyphean task -- yet. COVID-19 has done them zero favors in the last two-plus weeks, yet Cleveland managed to find a way to win the game it needed most last week against these same Steelers. With Pittsburgh's full roster presenting a greater challenge than Week 17, it's fair to expect this one to go the Steelers' way, at least on paper. But the playoffs often present some unexpected outcomes. Cleveland once took a lead in Pittsburgh in the aforementioned playoff game before the Steelers came roaring back, playing Styx's "Renegade" for the first time and riding the wave of momentum to a legendary comeback victory.

All of that is water under the bridge at this point. It's a new decade and two completely different teams. But the Browns still have that ghost to vanquish, and they won't be at full strength in attempting to do so. Getting to the playoffs was enough for plenty of Browns fans, who just wanted meaningful football for their team at this point in the season. It's a great setup for an incredible upset -- and provides Browns fans with lofty hopes the Steelers are fully ready to crush on the prime-time stage.

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