CLEVELAND (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers can handle beating the Browns all by themselves. That’s hardly ever a problem.
However, for them to make the AFC playoffs, they’re going to need some help.
A shocking loss last week in Baltimore has put the Steelers in a must-win-and-then-hope-Buffalo-can-beat-the-New York Jets bind. It’s not ideal, but it’s all the Steelers have as they enter the season finale against the Browns, now absent from the postseason for 13 years and counting.
The Steelers (9-6) never imagined being in this predicament after winning five of six — overcoming key injuries along the way — to position themselves for another playoff berth. But the 20-17 loss to the Ravens has the Steelers staring at a premature winter vacation, something the black-and-gold denizens of Western Pennsylvania are not accustomed to.
First things first. As long as they don’t stumble against the Browns (3-12), whom they easily handled 30-9 on Nov. 15, the Steelers have a playoff pulse.
“We have to take care of our business first,” said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “If we have to do that, we have to watch and wait. It’s our own fault we don’t control our own destiny, so we have to go do everything we can to get ourselves in.”
Roethlisberger was sent home from practice during the week with a head cold, but he’s expected to be fully recovered by kickoff — and that’s not a healthy thing for the Browns.
Big Ben is 19-4 against Cleveland, including an 8-2 mark at FirstEnergy Stadium, which will have a large number of Terrible Towel-waving Steelers fans on hand.
Roethlisberger accepted blame for the unexpected loss to the Ravens and could take out his frustrations on Cleveland’s injury-decimated secondary.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown had 10 catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns when the teams met earlier this season. Browns coach Mike Pettine said Brown, who has 123 catches for 1,647 yards this season, might be the league’s “best overall player. We will certainly have our hands full there.”
With the Jets and Bills starting at the same time, the Steelers will have to avoid temptation to check the out-of-town scoreboard.
“We’ve got to take care of business first,” linebacker Arthur Moats said. “If I peek up there and we’re losing, it doesn’t really matter.”
Here are a few other things to watch as the Steelers and Browns renew a rivalry that has grown lopsided over the past 15 years:
PETTINE’S FAREWELL? Unfortunately for Pettine, whose job security has been in question for months, a final date with the Steelers has meant the end for four predecessors.
Romeo Crennel (2008), Eric Mangini (2010), Pat Shurmur (2012) and Rob Chudzinski (2013) were all fired following season-finale losses to Pittsburgh.
Pettine enters with a 10-21 record, a mark made worse by the Browns’ disappointing performance on defense this season. If Pettine is let go by owner Jimmy Haslam, Cleveland will begin searching for its eighth coach since 1999.
SLOW STARTS: The Steelers have struggled taking control early in recent weeks, falling behind against Indianapolis, Denver and Baltimore. The Broncos converted eight straight third downs to start the game, and the Ravens were nearly as successful last week while throwing Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes into jeopardy.
The Steelers, however, aren’t quite ready to heap all the blame on the defense.
“We had chances too,” said tight end Heath Miller. “We have opportunities to hold onto the ball and extend drives and we couldn’t get it done. We need to stay on the field.”
QUARTERBACK SWITCH: With Johnny Manziel’s season ended by a concussion, Austin Davis will start at quarterback for Cleveland. This will be the second start for Davis, who was on the wrong end of a 37-3 thumping against Cincinnati on Dec. 6.
He’s got a chance to redeem himself and help keep the Steelers out of the playoffs.
“You know, why not?” he said. “They have a lot to play for so we know they’re going to come in and play hard. We have a lot to play for, too, because it’s another game. It’s another Sunday. If we could knock them out and keep them from going to the playoffs, that’d be good.”
A LITTLE HELP: This isn’t the first time in recent years Pittsburgh has needed some help to get in on the final weekend. Two years ago the Steelers rallied from a 2-6 start to the cusp of the postseason, only to miss out when Kansas City’s Ryan Succop missed a 41-yard field goal at the end of regulation and the Chiefs saw San Diego win — and grab a playoff berth in overtime.
“Losing on a 6-inch field goal? I remember,” guard David DeCastro said. “This year is kind of a sick feeling, you thought you had control. We can’t worry about it. We have to win this game to have a chance.”
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