Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns
Line: Pittsburgh -6
Where: Heinz Field
When: Sunday, 1/10, at 8:15 p.m. ET
COVID-19 has been disrupting teams all season — it has happened again in the playoffs.
Cleveland will be without head coach Kevin Stefanski along with two other coaches and two players against Pittsburgh after positive tests. The Browns were 4.5-point underdogs, but the line moved to -6 when the news broke earlier in the week. Sunday night’s Wild Card total opened at 46.5 and has ticked up to 47 points.
Pittsburgh suffered a three-game losing skid in December after starting the season with an 11-0 record. The Steelers dropped games to Washington, Buffalo and Cincinnati, averaging just 16.3 points per game during that stretch. They appeared to be heading towards a fourth straight loss before a monster second-half comeback propelled them to a 28-24 win over Indianapolis.
This will be the second consecutive week Pittsburgh faces Cleveland, but the stakes are much different this time around. The Steelers rested some key starters last week, but still almost found a way to grab the upset as 9.5-point underdogs.
They will have veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back under center on Sunday. He finally started to air the ball out down the field in the second half against the Colts, throwing for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Pittsburgh ranked near the bottom of the NFL in offense this season, averaging just 334.6 yards per game.
Wide receivers Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and Juju Smith-Schuster all struggled at times down the stretch. Running back James Conner averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 169 attempts this season.
They will be facing an average Cleveland defense that allowed 358.4 yards per game. The Browns rank No. 21 in scoring defense, giving up 26.2 points per contest.
Cleveland was not particularly great on offense either, ranking 14th with 25.5 points per game. Quarterback Baker Mayfield will be without Stefanski, who has called the plays all season. Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge are also out after testing positive.
“Just gotta put a plan together, go find a way to win,” Stefanski said.
The Browns are not expected to have any other players put on the reserve/COVID-19 list due to contact tracing. They have leaned on a strong rushing attack all season. Nick Chubb went over 1,000 yards on the season last week and averaged 5.6 yards per carry.
Kareem Hunt added 198 carries for 841 yards and six touchdowns. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry was Mayfield’s top target in the passing game, tallying 72 receptions for 840 yards and three scores.
Cleveland is 3-8 against-the-spread in its last 11 games. The Browns are 1-4 ATS in their last five games against the Steelers. Pittsburgh has won seven of its last eight home games, but it is just 2-4 ATS in its last six games this season. These teams have played ‘under’ the total in 13 of their last 20 head-to-head meetings.
The pick: Pittsburgh -6
I don’t think the market has adjusted enough for Stefanski’s absence in this game. The Browns are going to be without their play caller and two other assistants on Sunday night. Mayfield is not a veteran quarterback and has relied on good coaching to guide him through the regular season. Roethlisberger was able to rest last week and is coming off a strong second half against Indianapolis. The Steelers have more playoff experience and have dominated Cleveland over the years. They will pressure Mayfield early and often, which will lead to a few turnovers and ideal field position for the Pittsburgh offense.