The stakes were pretty low as the Steelers entered their Week 17 matchup against the Browns with nothing to play for but a second seed that isn’t as vital as it used to be in a seven-team playoff format.
Cleveland, on the other hand, had everything to play for. In this case, “everything” was the franchise’s first postseason berth since 2002. Furthermore, this was a game that included a modest crowd at FirstEnergy Stadium, and just how familiar would it have been for those folks to have their hearts broken yet again?
Sure, the 1980 Raiders, John Elway and even the late Art Modell, the owner of the original Browns franchise who moved the team to Baltimore in 1996, have haunted Cleveland fans for decades.
But Rudolph, the third-year quarterback who was only getting the start because Ben Roethlisberger’s 38-year old body was wisely placed in some bubble-wrap for safe-keeping until the playoffs arrive next week? He would actually do something to haunt Cleveland’s faithful?
He did a lot to scare them, as he and the rest of a Steelers crew that was also missing T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and Joe Haden, hung in for three periods before mounting a fourth-quarter comeback and nearly closed a 15-point gap with late touchdowns from Rudolph to Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Unfortunately, Rudolph’s two-point attempt intended for Claypool sailed high, and the Browns and their fans got to celebrate a rare playoff berth.
I was proud of Rudolph’s performance. He passed for 315 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that should have been negated by a roughing the passer penalty that wasn’t called.
I was also impressed with so many other young Steelers, including rookies Claypool, who tallied five receptions for 101 yards and a score, and outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, who registered nine tackles, a sack and some impressive pass-rush moves.
The Steelers had the ability to play things fast and loose, with pressure at a minimum, given the circumstances of the game. The fact that they still came within a few plays of breaking Cleveland’s heart yet again showed me a lot.
The Steelers may have dropped their fourth game out of five to close out the regular season, but Sunday’s game certainly didn’t feel like a defeat. It felt like a shot in the arm for a franchise that probably didn’t even need another one after getting off the Scheid against the Colts a week earlier.
The Steelers are ready for the playoffs, and they showed on Sunday that they’re also ready for a Cleveland team that will be their opponent again next week when they come to Heinz Field for a wildcard game.
The question is, will the Browns be ready for the real thing?