The last time the Cleveland Browns won a game at Heinz Field, Mike Tomlin was a defensive backs coach in Tampa and a clean-shaven Ben Roethlisberger was leading Miami (Ohio) to a near-perfect 2003 season.
Those two longtime cornerstones of the Steelers franchise are favored by about a touchdown to maintain the Browns’ misfortunes when Pittsburgh hosts Cleveland Sunday night for a wild card playoff game.
It is a rematch of a contest played just over 100 miles away in Ohio last Sunday, when the Browns won 24-22 in a game in which Tomlin rested Roethlisberger and three other key starters, including potential NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt.
Now the Browns are the ones who will have the most key absences, starting with head coach Kevin Stefanski, who has been sidelined by a positive COVID-19 test along with several other coaches and players.
When both teams were at relatively full strength back on Oct. 18, the Steelers won in Pittsburgh, 38-7. The Browns played much better subsequently, securing their first playoff appearance since the 2002 season — a year so far in the past that Rudolph Giuliani was being honored with a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.
But that postseason 18 years ago consisted also of a loss to — you guessed it — the Steelers. In this current postseason, nearly all of Pennsylvania’s now-dozen online sportsbooks make Pittsburgh a 6-point favorite to keep up Cleveland’s trail of despair.
The one exception is the state’s most-used sports betting site, FanDuel, which had the Steelers favored by 5.5 points Friday morning, but with increased vig of -115.
Consistency not a strong suit for teams
The game is the last of six NFL wild card games to be played over the weekend under an altered, COVID-created playoff format, and it features two rivals that are among the more mercurial of playoff teams.
The Steelers started 11-0 before going on a three-game skid and finishing the season 12-4 as the AFC’s No. 3 seed, behind the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills.
While the Browns’ 11-5 record was their best in many years, they lost to the lowly New York Jets on Dec. 27 and barely beat the Jacksonville Jaguars by two points on Nov. 29.
So suffice to say that anything can happen, but the sportsbooks do see the COVID cases as costly to Cleveland. Monday morning, the online sites had the Steelers favored by 3.5 to 4.5 points, before the reports out of Cleveland — where the Browns’ practice facility has been closed all week for health precautions — moved the game mostly to 6.
The best moneyline offer for Steelers bettors is with Caesars, at -260, while other sites range from -265 to -275.
The points over/under is a consistent 47.5 across the board.
Offenses use different strategies
The Steelers had the most anemic rushing attack (or non-attack) in the NFL during the season, averaging just 84.4 yards per game compared to Cleveland’s third-best 148.4, using alternating roles from Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Even if backup QB Mason Rudolph hadn’t thrown for 315 yards last week in a closer-than-expected Steelers loss when they had nothing to play for, one would assume Roethlisberger would himself be putting the ball in the air 40 or more times Sunday, as has become his custom. He relies on quick, short passes to a wide array of young receivers — who have a lot of talent but also led the league in drops — but Rudolph had success against a questionable Browns secondary when stretching the field last week.
To demonstrate the different expectations for the two offenses, DraftKings has an over/under on Roethlisberger pass completions of 27.5, while Baker Mayfield’s is 19.5. The passing yardage o/u is 289.5 compared to 235.5.
One wild card in this wild card game, however, is what it means that Stefanski, a candidate for NFL Coach of the Year, won’t be on the sidelines handling play-calling due to his COVID status. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, the former Pitt quarterback who had a brief stint with the Steelers 27 years ago, will call the plays.
Meanwhile, Mayfield will have to face a ferocious Steelers defense that became the first ever to lead the league in sacks four consecutive years, and he will have to do it without COVID-sidelined star offensive guard Joel Bitonio.
Wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge and strong safety Ronnie Harrison are among other Browns who will miss the game due to COVID, while the Steelers’ one key coronavirus-related absence is cornerback Joe Haden.
Wild card promos available, with more expected
To note the start of the NFL postseason, a number of betting sites are offering special promotions, with still more offers likely to be posted before Sunday night.
Among those available as of Friday morning:
DraftKings: A 100% profit boost is available on any bet up to $50 for the Steelers-Browns clash. It also offers a 50% profit boost for a live bet in any of the six games and has a special 50% wild card parlay boost.
Barstool: The Penn National Gaming site has a variety of offers, one of them to refund net losses up to $100 for those placing a six-leg parlay that includes each wild card game. In another, for those wagering at least $20 on a wild card game, a $21 bonus is provided any time a quarter ends with a team holding a score of exactly 21 points.
FOX Bet: A boost to +100 (from -133) is posted for a wager that Roethlisberger will pass for at least 250 yards and two TDs.
FanDuel: As it has offered throughout the season, a Same Game Parlay returns up to $25 in site credit for a losing parlay of three or more legs in which only one of the wagers missed.