AFC Wild Card Matchup:
#6 Browns (11-5) at #3 Steelers (12-4)
Sunday, January 10, 05:15 PM PST (NBC)
Time for round three. The Browns and Steelers played twice already this season. The last Browns and Steelers matchup, unfortunately, was more Browns versus “Steelers.” It came about a week ago, and the Steelers rested many of their best players in order to get them fresh for the more important rubber match between these squads. The Browns made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2003, and unfortunately have to face a team that started 11-0. Fortunately for the Mistake by the Lake, that team seems to be gone, as they lost four of their last five games to end the year. How can the Cleveland Browns walk out of this AFC Wild Card matchup with a victory? What about the Steelers? Let’s take a look at this AFC North round three in the AFC Wild Card conclusion on Sunday Night Football.
How the Cleveland Browns Win
Important Player: Myles Garrett
Garrett versus the Steelers, sans Mason Rudolph, doesn’t have the same sex appeal. Fortunately for us, Myles Garrett is still a great player, regardless of intrigue. The former #1 overall pick ranked sixth in the league with twelve sacks. The impressive part is getting there in just fourteen games. Unfortunately for the Browns, Garrett notched just one sack between their two matchups against the Steelers. That’s a theme for the Steelers this season. The Steelers allowed a league-low fourteen sacks of their quarterback this season… in sixteen games! Some of this is the offensive line, but a lot of it has to do with the Steelers and Ben throwing the ball as fast as anyone in the league. Their 2.1 seconds of pocket time league the lead. Myles Garrett will need some get off to get to Ben, but if he does, the Browns can take this one down.
Important Statistic: Baker Mayfield Pocket Time
This will be an interesting strength-on-strength matchup for the Browns and the Steelers. No team got to the quarterback at a higher rate than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who notched a pressure on 32.3% of dropbacks. The Browns, on the flip side, provided their quarterback with more than enough time to throw the ball. By “more than enough time” I mean “a league-leading amount of time.” No quarterback had more time in the pocket this season than Baker Mayfield. His 2.7 seconds of pocket time topped a seven-way tie for second. A lot of time in the pocket doesn’t guarantee success; Carson Wentz, Cam Newton, and Drew Lock are part of that morass. But, it certainly doesn’t hurt matters.
Important Position Group: Running Backs
Arguably the best one-two punch in the entire NFL, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt will try to make life difficult for the Steelers in this one. While the Browns offensive line doesn’t give them a ton of help, they aren’t a liability for these two (fifteenth-highest yards before contact per attempt). The Browns’ RB tandem takes it the rest of the way, as Cleveland is near the top of many RB-specific leaderboards. Cleveland is second in yards after contact per attempt (2.3 yards per carry come after contact) and break a tackle every 11.8 carries. That is the fifth-highest rate in the NFL. The Browns will need to lean on these guys to get themselves out of the AFC Wild Card Round.
How the Pittsburgh Steelers Win
Important Player: T.J. Watt
T.J. Watt is the best pass rusher on the best pass rush in the NFL. No disrespect to Cam Heyward or Bud Dupree, but T.J. Watt is it. He ranked third in the league in QB hurries, second in QB knockdowns, and first in sacks. All told, Watt led the league with 55 quarterback pressures, and the second-place guy (Chris Jones, with 43) wasn’t particularly close. Watt also did all of this in just fifteen games, as he did not play last weekend against the Browns. Watt is going to be the make-or-break player that the Browns focus their defense around stopping. With Joel Bitonio missing the game due to COVID-19, that might be harder than it looks on paper. And it looks very, very hard on paper.
Important Statistic: Cleveland Browns on COVID-19 Restrictions
Honestly, I don’t think this one ends up particularly close, and it will be a laugher to end the first round of the playoffs. The Browns haven’t been able to practice all week, their head coach cannot coach them because he has COVID-19, and they added two key parts of their team (Joel Bitonio and KhaDarel Hodge) on COVID-19 IR. They also placed Olivier Vernon on IR. The poor Browns escaped the NFL regular season for the first time since 2003, but in a Final Destination set of events, the Grim Reaper is coming for them. It doesn’t really matter what they do; they’re outmatched, outgunned, and barely outscored the Steelers’ backups in week seventeen.
Important Position Group: Wide Receivers
The WR corps for the Steelers are undoubtedly the strongest part of the offense. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and James Washington are the core of the offensive weaponry, and their usage definitely reflects that. No other team in the NFL threw more passes to their wide receivers than the Steelers in 2020, with 459 targets (70%) headed toward wide receivers. The Steelers will live or die with their wide receivers in this game, and given that they also lead the league in wide receiver touchdowns, it’s likely they live with them.