By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — After a weekend off for the first time since an Oct. 10 bye week, the Pittsburgh Steelers are back in action this week.
The Steelers (11-4) travel to face the Cleveland Browns (5-10) Sunday at 1 p.m. in Cleveland, Ohio. Even though the Steelers already have qualified for the NFL playoffs, some believe the season is on the line this week.
If the Steelers win, they capture the AFC North Division title and earn a first-round bye during the upcoming playoffs. Other scenarios to reach that result include a Steelers tie and loss or tie by the Baltimore Ravens or a Ravens loss.
A Ravens win and Steelers loss would make the Steelers a wild-card team and considerably hamper their playoff hopes. It would give them two losses in their final three games and probably have them traveling to Kansas City for a first-round playoff game.
Along with the playoff implications, the Steelers all remember what happened the last time they went to Cleveland. On a late-December Thursday night in 2009, the Browns pounded the Steelers and sealed their playoff fate with a 13-6 victory.
“We understand what’s at stake here,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “What better way to have to go about winning the division than to go on the road and do it in a rival’s home.
“We understand the challenge, and we understand that they’ll be game ready, and we’re going to spend the rest of the week preparing ourselves to get into a similar frame of mind.”
Tomlin also discussed the injury situation, and it appears that two players are questionable. Running back Mewelde Moore has a right knee sprain, so rookie Jonathan Dwyer could be activated. But Moore has not yet been ruled out.
And safety Troy Polamalu is still battling ankle and Achilles issues. Tomlin said he will not practice until Friday and will play if he’s healthy. However, since he has not played or practiced in two-plus weeks, it appears to be unlikely that he’ll play unless he’s completely healthy.
Defensive end Aaron Smith is not yet ready to practice, but he’s getting closer.
“Troy is improving,” Tomlin said. “We’re going to look at him and watch him move this week, so it’s not out of the realm….
of possibility that he could play this weekend. And if he’s healthy, he will.
“Aaron is a week better. We scanned him, and he’s healing nicely. He’s pushing and lifting weights and so forth and is inching closer to practice participation and hopefully game participation here at some point.”
Several other players could be limited early in the week, but should still be ready to play Sunday. They are cornerback Bryant McFadden (hip pointer), outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds (left knee swelling).
Even though the series has not been indicative of a rivalry since the Browns returned to the NFL, as the Steelers won 12 straight meetings prior to the loss last season in Cleveland, Tomlin termed it as such.
“Anytime in the National Football League that you get on a bus to go play a game, that’s a pretty heated rivalry,” Tomlin said. “There aren’t many bus trips in the National Football League. Just from a proximity standpoint, it’s unique. (And) the history is what it is.
“Two storied franchises, the fans, (but) I think the close proximity and the history makes it what it is. … I’d like to have a rivalry with everybody we play. We have a rivalry versus the Ravens, the Bengals and the Browns. That’s the nature of AFC North football.”
The Browns officially knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs last season, and Cleveland could seriously hamper their playoff hopes this year as well.
That’s all the motivation the Steelers should need.
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