Two teams from the NFC North meet in what looks like a mouth-watering Wild Card play-off game this weekend, when Cleveland Browns travel to face the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. This is the first time that the Browns have made the play-offs since 2002. The game is also the second time in two weeks that these teams have faced each other and the third time that they will have met this season. That kind of familiarity makes the game an interesting tactical challenge for the coaches.
Are the Steelers still strong?
Last weekend when these two teams faced each other it was the Browns who came out on top, winning 24-22 in Cleveland and sealing a place in the play-offs. After making the early season running and going 11-0, it looked like the Steelers might be genuine contenders this season. They then lost four out of their last five games of the season, and the Browns must fancy their chances this weekend.
One major difference from last week’s game is that the Steelers will have a different quarterback starting under center. Mason Rudolph will be replaced by Ben Roethlisberger, 13 years his senior, who was rested last week. The Browns’ defense is vulnerable to deep passes, so Roethlisberger might look to go long through the air. His own stats indicate that that might not be the best idea, though, as his completion rate on passes of 15-plus air yards of 37.1% is the 8th-worst in the NFL among quarterbacks with 25 or more such attempts. The Browns had conceded 14 touchdowns this season from passes of more than 15 air yards heading into Week 17.
The Browns have a strong passing game of their own, with QB Baker Mayfield having completed 405 of 383 passes this season for 3553 yards and 26 touchdowns. Mayfield is particularly effective when it comes to play action passes, helped by an offensive line that includes Jack Conklin, Wyatt Teller, and Joel Bitonio.
Our Pick: Steelers first to reach 25 points
We suspect that the Steelers will win this game, though it might well be close again. The lack of play-off experience in the Browns roster will be important, while it is unlikely that Ben Roethlisberger will play as badly again as he did earlier in the season. The combination of home advantage and prior play-off experience will prove enough for Pittsburgh, who will win a narrow game. Our tip comes from 888Sport, who are offering odds of -124 on the Steelers being the first team to reach 25 points.
Our pick: Steelers first to reach 25 points @ -124 with 888Sport
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