Watching the Steelers-Browns playoff game unfold Sunday night in Pittsburgh, my sentiments were with Cleveland.
Nothing against the Steelers, but that franchise has had remarkable success dating to the mid-1970s.
Cleveland hadn’t made the postseason in 17 years, a stretch also endured by the Bills that didn’t end until 2017. In addition, the Browns hadn’t won a playoff game in 26 years, one more than it took Buffalo when it ended Saturday afternoon.
Those three Rust Belt cities have had very different recent NFL pedigrees. Pittsburgh has been a league power, Cleveland and Buffalo two-decade punching bags desperate to get into the playoff ring.
And when the Browns took a 28-0 lead barely 13 minutes in, while scoring the most first-quarter points in National Football League playoff history, a four-touchdown cushion seemingly wouldn’t (couldn’t?) be blown in the final three quarters. Oh, the Steelers made their obligatory run, cutting the margin to 12 with 18 minutes to play, but eventually Cleveland (12-5) regrouped for a 48-37 victory.
Then it occurred to me.
In the law of unintended consequences, the Browns’ win gave Buffalo (14-3) a much harder divisional-round draw.
Cleveland’s victory earned it a meeting with the AFC’s top-seeded Chiefs (14-2), who have had two weeks off, Sunday in Kansas City.
Meanwhile, the streaking Ravens (12-5) travel to Orchard Park to meet the Bills Saturday night.
HAD PITTSBURGH won, the Steelers would have been Bills Stadium-bound, a site where they lost, 26-15, five weeks ago.
Yet even in the midst of an 11-0 start, Steelers fans were concerned about the way they were winning (six one-possession decisions). Those questions ballooned as Pittsburgh lost five of its last six games, the lone win a dramatic comeback against Indianapolis. In those five defeats – two to teams with losing records – the Steelers were outscored by an average of 30-21.
Over that stretch, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked every bit of his nearly 39 years and Pittsburgh’s defense was a shadow of its best.
Against the Browns, over whom Pittsburgh was a touchdown favorite, the Steelers came out flat. They were seemingly victims of the perception that Cleveland, without its head coach and four key assistants due to Covid-19 protocol, plus five starters, including both cornerbacks, wouldn’t be much of a test.
The Steelers, collectively, lacked energy, tackled and covered poorly and it wasn’t until Cleveland’s lead extended to embarrassing that Pittsburgh’s offense finally found some rhythm … too little, too late.
THE OPENING line favored Buffalo over Baltimore by three points, but it’s now 2½ and will likely fall to two by game time as this matchup is fascinating, pitting two of the NFL’s hottest teams.
The Ravens, after a stuttering 6-5 start, have won six straight games, including its 20-13 wild-card victory over the Titans Sunday in Nashville.
During that span, coach John Harbaugh’s team has outscored its opposition by a gaudy 34-15 per game.
Meanwhile, the Bills have won 10 of their last 11 – the lone stumble Kyler Murray’s last-second heroics in that 32-30 loss at Arizona – and the last seven in a row, including Saturday’s tense 27-24 wild-card victory over Indianapolis at Orchard Park.
In those games, including the loss, Buffalo’s average scoring edge is 34-21.
WHAT MAKES this matchup so interesting is the contrast between the two quarterbacks.
Buffalo’s Josh Allen, clearly in the top three candidates for NFL MVP, has blossomed in his third year.
This season, after two years being stuck in the mid-50s, he’s completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, with 37 touchdown throws, only 10 interceptions plus nine rushing and one receiving score, giving him 47 total TDs through the playoff win.
In his three seasons, Allen has rushed for over 1,700 yards and 26 scores with 67 touchdown passes and 31 picks in 46 games, including playoffs.
Despite his numbers on the ground, Allen’s reputation, especially this season, has been made as a passer. Twice he threw for 415 yards and eight times exceeded 300, both team records.
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson is different from Allen.
This season, his biggest passing output has been 275 yards; indeed, he’s exceeded 200 only five times.
Over his three years – Allen was picked seventh in 2018’s first round, Jackson 32nd – Baltimore’s QB has thrown 71 touchdown passes and been picked off 22 times in 49 games, three in the postseason.
But it’s on the ground where he genuinely frightens opponents.
In his NFL career, Jackson has rushed for an incredible 3,239 yards – an average of 1,080 per season – with 20 touchdowns. He gashed the Titans for 136 ground yards on 16 carries, including a spectacular 48-yard TD sprint.
That’s not good news for the Bills, whose defensive flaw has been stopping the run, ranking 20th in the league in that statistic (120 yards per game) and having just surrendered 163 to the Colts three days ago.
Buffalo is nearly the opposite, ranking 20th in the league running the ball (107 per) and the news got worse against Indy when the Bills likely lost rookie Zack Moss for the rest of the playoffs with an ankle injury.
The advance weather forecast for Saturday night calls for temperatures in the upper 20s, a 40% chance of snow and winds 10-15 mph.
It will be interesting if those conditions dictate a squareoff of ground games.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)