Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2020 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Cleveland Browns (11-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Earlier this week, I was expecting to bet on the Browns. I had the Browns as the slightly better of these two teams, but the Steelers were being favored by a field goal at home, where they wouldn’t have any homefield advantage. The Steelers won one more game than the Browns this season, despite not even trying in their week 17 matchup with the Browns with the division locked up, and the Steelers have the edge in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+0.93% vs. -1.12%), but the Browns’ issues were primarily concentrated on the defensive side of the ball, ranking 27th in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.14%, while the Steelers’ issues were primarily concentrated on the offensive side of the ball, ranking 30th in first down rate over expected at -3.56%. 

Offensive performance is much more predictive than defensive performance, which was a good sign for the Browns’ chances going forward, compared to the Steelers. The Steelers did beat the Browns easily in their first matchup this season, winning 38-7 in week 6, and then last week the Steelers’ backups came within a 2-point conversion of tying the game late in a 24-22 Browns victory, but those scores don’t tell you the whole story. 

In the first matchup, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was playing at far less than 100% through an injury and he was missing stud running back Nick Chubb and key right guard Wyatt Teller. In the second matchup, the Browns actually won the first down rate battle by 6.18% and led 24-9 late before Pittsburgh converted two 4th downs and stopped the Browns on a 4th down attempt of their own, to make the final score look closer than the game was throughout. The Browns seemed to be underrated, with casual fans putting a lot of stock in the first two matchups between these teams. 

The Browns also seemed to be getting healthier, with stud running back Nick Chubb (4 games missed), key right guard Wyatt Teller (5 games), #1 wide receiver Jarvis Landry (1 game), starting left tackle Jedrick Wills (1 game), starting tight end Austin Hooper (3 games), edge defender Myles Garrett (2 games), top cornerback Denzel Ward (4 games), and safety Ronnie Harrison (5 games) all looking likely to play this game after missing significant time earlier in the season. Unfortunately, that changed very quickly.

Most of the aforementioned players will still play, but Ward is considered a gametime decision and Harrison is out due to COVID protocols, as is left guard Joel Bitonio, who is just as important to this offensive line as Teller, who could be playing at less than 100%. Also possibly at less than 100% is right tackle Jack Conklin, who didn’t practice at all on Friday. The Browns also lost talented starting defensive end Olivier Vernon to a torn Achilles and also won’t have head coach Kevin Stefanski and some key assistants. 

Despite all that, I could still be talked into taking the Browns, as this line has shifted appropriately by 3 points, favoring Pittsburgh by 6. My calculated line now has the Steelers favored by 2.5 or maybe 3 points, with the Steelers having nominal homefield only and being just 2 points better than the Browns in my roster rankings, even with the Browns at less than 100%. I’m not going to place a bet on the Browns just yet, but when I have confirmation of who is playing in this game for Cleveland, I may decide to place a bet at +6. The Steelers won half of their games by fewer than 6 points this season, including matchups against the Broncos, Cowboys, and the COVID depleted Ravens, so the Browns could definitely keep this game close, even if they can’t pull the upset.

Update: The Browns won’t have Denzel Ward or fellow cornerback Kevin Johnson this week, but they will have cornerback Terrance Mitchell, linebacker Malcolm Smith and right tackle Jack Conklin, who were all listed as questionable, while safety Ronnie Harrison, originally out after a positive COVID test, was confirmed to be a false positive and will play. With all of the Browns’ Sunday COVID testing out of the way, I feel comfortable placing a bet on the Browns at +6, which I am locking in now because the lines have dropped to 5 and 5.5 in some places.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23 Cleveland Browns 20

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +6

Confidence: Medium

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