Pregame Zone Blitz: Steelers Division Title, Browns Super Bowl

It's the Super Bowl for the Cleveland Browns.

They can't make the playoffs, but if nothing else, they can stop the Steelers from winning yet another AFC North championship. The Steelers need to win, or Baltimore needs to lose at home to Cincinnati (snicker) to wrap up the division championship for the third time in the last four years.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin put it beautifully earlier this week: "Any time in the National Football League you're getting on a bus to go play a game, I mean, that's a pretty heated rivalry."

The last time the Steelers got on a bus to go play the Browns, it didn't end well. And they have more incentive to win this game - knocking the big bad Steelers off the division throne - than they did last year.

The Browns also know what it's like to lose this kind of a game. Some may remember a Week 16 clash between Cincinnati and Cleveland in 2007, the last time the Browns were relevant. Somehow, Cincinnati got a winning performance out of its lowly Bengals, eliminating them from the post-season.

PZB would think that's gotta stick with a franchise that only won 14 out of its next 47 games.

While the Bengals helped the Steelers out in 2007, odds aren't good they'll do it again. Cincinnati hasn't won three in a row all year, and would have to face a strong Ravens team that's playing for a home game and free passage through the first round of the playoffs.

There's plenty on the line in Week 17, and PZB's got plenty to talk about after a nine-day publication embargo, including PZB seeing a certain Pro Bowl rookie, the league's latest PR failure and a must-see tradition for Browns Week.

Opponent Web Sites/Forums

Clearly, the Browns had no chance of cooling Ravens FS Ed Reed off. He literally caught on fire right before the game ended, after snaring two interceptions off rookie QB Colt McCoy.

 The loss to Baltimore didn't help coach Eric Mangini's case to stick around as head coach in 2011, but at least he has some players in his corner.

Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer casts his vote against Mangini's return.

Chris Pokorney of Dawgs By Nature is a bit more original, and blames the players on the field for Cleveland's Week 16 loss to Baltimore -McCoy in particular.

Last Game

It's not often one teams outgains another 408-119 in total yards. When one team has a 35-24 time of possession advantage, and runs 68 plays to 49 for the opposition, one may think it'd be steeper than a score of 27-3.

Indeed it was.

The Steelers became the latest team to steamroll the Panthers in their season of malaise, but more importantly, Pittsburgh set up a final week showdown with the Browns, with a first-round bye and the division championship resting in the balance.

No team in the league could be as miserable as the rebuilding Panthers. They were somewhat effective on the ground, relatively speaking (71 yards is above average against Pittsburgh), but QB Jimmy Clausen completed 43 percent of his passes (which is average for him) and accounted for just 72 yards. I made the comment to SteelerBro while we sat at his palatial estate for the game, in the midst of the slaughter the Steelers were putting him through, he enthusiastically slapped his hands, breaking the huddle. It didn't look like anyone else on the offense cared at all.

Not that there was any matter of conjecture, but clearly, Carolina is going with a quarterback with the first pick.

Ben Roethlisberger, on the other hand, was red hot in the first half, and looked to be on the same page with his receivers for the first time in four weeks. The tide of this team is turning toward the offense now, and Roethlisberger has cemented his place as the leader. He cut through a hobbled Panthers secondary with surgeon-like precision, connecting on 20+ yard passing plays with WRs Mike Wallace, Hines Ward and Emmanuel Sanders as well as TE Heath Miller.  

Us Against The World

How utterly ridiculous is it that James Harrison makes a football act and gets fined $75,000, and Richard Seymour, despite whatever happened to provoke him, slugs a player on national TV in full view of the cameras and knocks him to the ground -- and gets fined $25,000. Weak. Very weak.

Peter King

The randomly curious decision to reduce the fines of Harrison from $75,000 to $50,000, Falcons CB Dunta Robinson from $50,000 to $25,000 and Patriots SS Brandon Meriweather from $50,000 to $40,000 puts PZB at a complete loss. This couldn't possibly have anything to do with Brett Favre's $50,000 slap on the wrist for sexual harassment, could it? Nah...

Obviously this can be seen as a victory; but only if we choose to accept two wrongs making a right. The only reason Harrison's fine was reduced was because of the public outrage that poured over after Lord Favre was allowed to essentially walk from breaking corporate law. The PR machine that is the NFL couldn't be seen as considerably tougher on actions against players, but soft against its female employees, so 12 weeks after it happened, we receive a quiet and contrite statement that three fines have been rolled back.

And frankly, there's no one who could argue that Meriweather's hit was even close to legal, and Robinson gave himself a concussion with his hit. Yet, Robinson received the largest reduction (50 percent) and Meriweather received the lowest fine. The league can't pull back the fine on one if it doesn't on all three, and they still can't justify the amounts levied in three unrelated situations.

The joys of politics. All this really shows is the quarterback is favored in all aspects of the business, as well as yet another example of the embarrassingly poor management at the top of the league. In case you're scoring at home, plays that do not receive penalties on the field cost Steelers players $100,000, which is the going rate for a coach tripping an active player during the game. It's also twice as much as sending lewd pictures of yourself to league employees.

Any working stiff would have been fired immediately for doing what Favre did. While I admit, if I strapped on the pads, and launched helmet first into a co-worker, I'd likely be walked out the door by security, so the comparison isn't valid. But still, the message it sends the nation is the NFL's priority is keeping its marquee (read: offensive) players' safe, both on the field and off it.

James, spend that extra $25,000 on something for yourself. You've earned it.

Opponent Spotlight: QB Colt McCoy

The blueprint to success in the NFL is getting a franchise quarterback, and surrounding him with key role-playing talent.

The Browns seem to be leaning toward the opposite direction. McCoy, through seven starts, provides a confusing end product. His scouting report will read something to the effect of "athletic, makes good decisions, is an accurate passer, a willing and capable leader."

PZB can't argue with that assessment. However, is 81.9 passer rating and below-mediocre five touchdowns aren't lying either. Think it's a coincidence that the Browns have had six different players throw passes for them this year? McCoy, QB Seneca Wallace, QB Jake Delhomme, WR Josh Cribbs, WR Mohammad Massaquoi and even RB Peyton Hillis have all thrown passes this year.

At this point in his career, McCoy looks like he's capable of making one great throw a game, where the high-end passers are only missing one throw a game. He just doesn't look like he's capable of beating the opposing defense in each drive of a game. Meanwhile, to counter that, Cleveland has hooked its plow to Peyton Hillis, and he drove them...nowhere, really.

Hence the reason teams build around their quarterbacks nowadays, and not their running game.

If the Browns need McCoy to complete a pass for six yards, he'll get you seven. If they need him to complete a 13-yard pass, he'll get you seven. Breaking him down throw-by-throw, you'll see a general lack of arm strength, and a conservative approach that, over time, will keep his interception total low, but it won't produce big plays, and will bring nine defenders in the box to stop Hillis.

The rest of the league knows it, too. Hillis' yards per game during the Browns current three-game losing streak have gone from 108 in Week 14 (loss at Buffalo) to 59 (loss at Cincinnati) to 35 (loss to Batimore). The only big play potential the Browns show is using Cribbs and Massaquoi - who had a 29 yard touchdown pass to WR Brian Robiskie against Baltimore - on gadget plays.

When your team can only score when your starting quarterback is not throwing the ball, you've got a problem. As Mike Ditka said, "when you've got more than one starting quarterback, you don't have any."

This is a tryout game, not only for McCoy, but for the rest of the Browns, players and coaches. Mangini has very little chance of keeping his job after Sunday, and the best card he can play to prospective employers is the job he did with a rookie third-round pick starting half his games. Considering Hillis will be far less than 100 percent due to his injury, look for the Browns to get very aggressive down the field, go for it on 4th and short and throw in as many trick plays as situations will allow them.

We all know how much hope there is in Cleveland, with or without McCoy.

Steelers Spotlight: QB Ben Roethlisberger

It's partially a Week 17 Playoff Game, while the Steelers are going to the playoffs either way, there's a world of difference between a division championship/first round bye combo pack, and a game next week on the road.

Then again, the Steelers' last two Super Bowl championships came as the 6th seed (2005) and the 2nd seed (2008).

Either way, it's a big game, and the biggest big-game player the Steelers have is Roethlisberger. He made mention before his first game back from suspension, which was against Cleveland, that he had a score to settle after the Browns shocking upset last season. Roethlisberger leads the Steelers into another chance to exact a measure of revenge, and remembering the loss essentially cost the Steelers a playoff spot, he knows a win gives them another division title.

PZB expects Ben to put forward his typical gutsy performance. It's pretty much a certainty he'll surpass the 3,000 yard mark for the fifth consecutive year, he's also looking to have his lowest interception rate per pass attempt of his career. He's playing with control and poise, two traits that associate very closely with clutch performances in big games.

Just think if he was able to connect with that pass to TE Matt Spaeth against the Jets; neither Ben nor any other Steelers starter would be playing much, if at all, in this game.

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas.

Still, this is the kind of game Roethlisberger can take control of and own from the start. With emerging stud Manny Sanders getting more looks and complimenting veteran receivers like Hines Ward and Heath Miller, Ben's got the weapons at his disposal to fluster Cleveland's beleaguered defense.

I See You

I see you, Maurkice Pouncey. I hope I don't see you in Hawaii playing in the Pro Bowl because we'd all rather see you in the Super Bowl the following week, but congratulations for making your first of what we all hope will be many trips to the NFL all-star game.

When people assess the value you bring to this team, they'll see the Steelers offensive line lost its best player (RT Willie Colon) before practices with pads began and its second-best lineman, LT Max Starks, at the halfway point of the season. They'll see the team has played musical chairs with the starting right guard position, and now has two players who weren't on this team last year starting at tackle.

You, Maurkice, are the only constant in a year of influx in the trenches. You, the rookie, are the most valuable member of an offensive line that improved the team's average rushing yards per game from 112 yards per game in 2009 to 121.6 in 2010.

Now imagine if the line was at full strength all season.

You are without question the most impactful Steelers rookie since Roethlisberger in 2004, and the first one to make the Pro Bowl since Kendrell Bell in 2001. The leadership you've shown as a rookie is noticeable all over Steeler Nation, and while your Pro Bowl teammates James Harrison and Troy Polamalu are phenomenal players, I'm sure the loudest cheer in the locker room went up when your name was announced.

Now do us a favor, and crush someone this week for Lawrence Timmons, who was completely screwed out of a bid. Jerod Mayo...what a joke.

Key Stats

  • Roethlisberger threw for a career-high 259 first-half passing yards in Week 16
  • He and Wallace hooked up for a franchise-record 8th pass of 40 yards or more
  • Pittsburgh allowed 10 pass completions; the lowest total this season
  • Cleveland is the only team in the league to not allow a team to score 30 or more points this season
  • Hillis has only rushed for 94 yards in Cleveland's last two games (0-2)
  • James Farrior has five sacks in the last six games

Quick-Hitters

If The Playoffs Started Today: 1. New England; 2. Pittsburgh; 3. Kansas City; 4. Indianapolis; 5. Baltimore; 6. New York Jets. Wild Card round: Jets at Chiefs; Ravens at Colts.

Falling Short: PZB and SteelerWife came within three points of becoming the First Family of Fantasy Football in Week 16. In SteelerWife's first Fantasy Football effort, she led the Flacco BrowWaxers to her office league championship after her managerial prowess deduced Ryan Torain of Washington was a better start than Mike Tolbert of San Diego. Tolbert sprained his neck early in the game, leading to a -2 point performance, and Torain picked up 12. The fourth seed in the four-team playoff crushed the 1-seed and the 2-seed en route to victory. The brave souls of PZB's squad, Cromartie Can't Wrap Up, had to suffer from the reprehensible mistake of sitting Arizona's defense in favor of San Diego. Losing out on 12 points, the Chargers got a goose egg, and CCWU lost 50-47 after Michael Vick's poor overall performance Tuesday.  

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