Possibility of Browns collapse makes an otherwise dull Sunday exciting

By Joe Smeltzer

Don’t lie to yourself.

You know why you care about the Steelers’ last regular season game, and it has nothing to do with the Steelers.

A win probably won’t make a seventh Super Bowl ring any more likely, so don’t pretend that it would.

Unless Mason Rudolph throws for about 400 yards or launches a football into Lake Erie— both scenarios are equally realistic— this game won’t make him the heir to Big Ben’s throne, so don’t pretend that it would.

Ok, maybe you’re slightly intrigued by Rudolph lining up opposite the man who beat him with his own helmet on the same playing surface, but that nonsense has peaked.

When Mike Tomlin announced Tuesday that Ben Roethlisberger would sit, he told America that this year’s regular season finale, in the words of Bill Murray, “just doesn’t matter” to the Steelers.

And it shouldn’t matter. Well, not for team employees. The only way a win would do anything for Pittsburgh’s playoff chances is if Buffalo loses to Miami and gives the Steelers control of who gets the No. 2 seed in the AFC. Assuming Josh Allen doesn’t sit, I don’t see that happening.

For the ones who can eat like pigs and drink like fish from 1-4 without losing their jobs, however, this game matters.

It matters because it’s an opportunity to watch the Browns combust. Not just combust, but combust in a way that, even by post-Art Modell standards, would be pretty spectacular.

As of last Sunday morning, the Clevelanders of old were in hibernation, and the new Browns were a lock for the playoffs. With a good coach who may one day be great, an oft-chastised quarterback finding his rhythm, plus a deep group of receivers and arguably the league’s best running game, these Brownies looked poised to have their most successful season since Modell owned the team, Belichick coached it and Municipal Stadium hosted it.

At 10-4, the Browns weren’t reminding old timers of watching Otto Graham, but they were a welcome sight, I’m sure, for younger blood who grew up having to pull for the likes of Dwayne Rudd, Barkevious Mingo and 525,600 quarterbacks.

All looked swell. Then, it started to sour. As it usually plays out in Northeast Ohio when LeBron James is somewhere other than Northeast Ohio, a combination of bad luck, poor performance and dumb coaching doomed a Cleveland sports team.

Due to— what else?—COVID-19, Cleveland had to play the lowly Jets without their top three receivers, an offensive lineman, a linebacker and Drew Carey.

Throughout the afternoon, Baker Mayfield gave his critics a late Christmas present by fumbling three times, the last one deep in Jets territory with a chance to tie it late.

Did Mayfield remember that he’s a Cleveland Brown quarterback?  

On the sideline, the normally savvy Kevin Stefanski decided to have Mr. Mayfield—ill receivers and healthy runners be damned— throw the ball 53 times.

Did Stefanski remember that he’s a Cleveland Brown head coach?

This week should be better for the Browns. Yes, they are still wounded, with defensive back Denzel Ward COVID positive and guard Wyatt Teller nursing a knee injury. But they are back home, and their opponent has nothing to play for.

I don’t think Cleveland is going to crumble Sunday. Pittsburgh, sans the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s win, has been playing bad football for a month, and that was with their best available horses on the track.

But, Steelers safety Lethon Flowers once said, “They still the Browns, it don’t matter”

Maybe, just maybe, it won’t.

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