CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-8) at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (9-3)
Thursday, 8:20 P.M. ET, NFL-Network, Sirius (Cle 92, Pit 93), Westwood One Radio
Well, we could spend time bashing the BCS, but this is a pro game and the only one on tonight. The NFL playoff system is why the BCS is held in light regard by football fans. BCS computer-based rankings are as legit as financial derivatives for setting value. Both the BCS and derivatives share the virtues of being risky, subject to manipulation and something of a fraud. The BCS is a cartel of conferences whose aim is to direct all revenue to them. Upstarts need not apply. The NFL is the same, but they give us playoffs as fair exchange.
You just know the Pittsburgh Steelers will be in the playoffs. And, you have a deep abiding suspicion that they will vie for the conference championship. Cleveland figures to be a road bump in their path. The NFL does so many things well, but flexible scheduling is not one of them. Under current policy, the NFL flexes Sunday games only. The league uses Thursday games to entice more cable companies to carry the NFL Network into more markets. They need more compelling games than this mismatch for that to happen. We will watch anyway if only to see how Pittsburgh can lose the division and still make it to the conference title game.
What To Watch
The Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens are the twin terrors of the AFC North, especially on defense. Both have crushing pass rushes and hard-hitting secondaries. Is there any real difference between safeties Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu? The difference is on offense. The Steelers pass where the Ravens run. The Browns lost to the Ravens last Sunday because they could not stop Ray Rice who rushed for 204 yards and a score. Baltimore controlled the clock for 37 minutes.
The Browns are no match for the Steelers in passing. The Steelers' top two wide receivers, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, combined for twice the output if the Browns' Greg Little and Josh Cribbs. Browns QB Colt McCoy would do considerably better if he were playing with talent like the Steelers. The one thing the Browns do well is to suppress passing yards. The Steelers are right behind them as the league's second best, after the Browns. There's a chance Cleveland will lose its No. 1 pass defense ranking after this face-off against Ben Roethlisberger and company.
Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers must shudder in his sleep at the prospect of being next year's Madden cover boy. That status does nothing for Peyton Hillis who won the honor after a ballot-stuffing campaign by Browns fans. Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns for Cleveland last season. He is on a pace for 400 yards and three touchdowns this season—another proof point that the Madden Jinx is real. Pittsburgh is favored by 14.
Who Will Win
If Pittsburgh coughs up three turnovers, Cleveland has a 50-50 shot to win. Otherwise, PITTSBURGH.