CLEVELAND — Last place. The loser of Sunday’s match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns will sit at the bottom of the AFC North Division heading into Week 9 of the NFL season.
While a loss would not signify the end of either team’s season or dash hopes of still making the NFL Playoffs, it would certainly serve as a reality check, especially considering Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals appear to have arrived at 5-2 and Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens don’t seem to be slowing down at 5-2.
A Browns victory on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium would have Cleveland 5-3 on the season and nearly keeping pace with the top two teams in the division. Has it been the start die-hard Browns fans envisioned? Not quite, but given the injuries and adversity the team has dealt with early on this season, most folks rocking orange and brown would likely sign up for that.
A loss, however, would drop the Browns back to .500 on the season at 4-4 and looking up at three teams in their own division with the Bengals on deck, followed by a road trip to Foxborough to square off with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, then a date with the scrappy (seemingly better than their winless record) Detroit Lions, followed by back-to-back games with the Ravens.
In other words -- the Browns better find a way to win at home on Sunday.
The Browns schedule won’t change, they will continue to have to navigate through injuries and the uncertainty of the health of Baker Mayfield's non-throwing shoulder. But a win Sunday against the Steelers merely makes life easier. Period.
Life hasn’t been rosy in Pittsburgh up until this point. Mike Tomlin’s name has suddenly surfaced for the USC Trojans vacant head coaching job, Ben Roethlisberger looks more like he’s 49-years-old than 39-years-old and while the defense features various playmakers, a 3-3 start almost feels like the best-case scenario for the Steelers.
Two things Pittsburgh may have going for them: first, they are coming off a much-needed bye week and they certainly have revenge on their minds given the fact the Browns eliminated them from the NFL Playoffs last season in a game that was never even close.
Regardless of who plays quarterback for the Browns, it still feels like a game Cleveland should win. However, the more I start to feel better about the Browns chances at victory come Sunday at 1:00 pm, the more I need to remind myself that this is still a heated rivalry and the Steelers did go into Buffalo and defeat the Bills in Week 1 of this season and have ripped off back-to-back wins.
Sunday’s match-up isn’t necessarily a “must-win” game for Cleveland or Pittsburgh, but a loss sure makes life a little more difficult going forward the final ten weeks of the regular season.