|National Football League|
Steelers weigh options while Browns try to avoid 0-16
By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) When the Pittsburgh Steelers escaped Cleveland with a 21-18 victory in the 2017 season opener on Sept. 10, they stressed there was no need to panic despite a largely "meh" performance.
The Steelers were confident they'd get it together and besides, the team they'd just played wasn't the "same old Browns."
Pittsburgh nailed that first part. Four months later, the Steelers (12-3) enter Sunday's season finale with their third AFC North title in four years and a first-round bye already locked up and have a fleeting shot at earning home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs if the New York Jets can somehow upset New England on the road.
About that second part though. Well ... in a way, maybe Pittsburgh was right. This isn't the "same old Browns" the Steelers face on New Year's Eve.
Somehow, this edition could be even worse.
The optimism from that sunny September afternoon has faded as the losses have piled up one on top of another.
Cleveland (0-15) will walk onto Heinz Field on Sunday needing three hours of sustained competence to avoid joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only team in NFL history to finish 0-16.
Still coach Hue Jackson stresses while the Browns are winless, they are not hopeless.
"As I told the team, we had to go through something," said Jackson, who believes he'll be back in 2018 even with a record of 1-30. "We have been through it for the last two years, but I truly believe we are at the end of that rainbow."
It's a rainbow Pittsburgh has spent the better part of 50 years avoiding, often at the expense of their closest rival.
Though there is professional respect for the way the Browns have soldiered on through the lowest point in franchise history, there's still work to be done, even if it's by the backups.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is weighing how much to play quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le'Veon Bell, among others.
It hardly mattered in the 2016 finale, when Landry Jones stepped in for Roethlisberger and guided a 27-24 comeback victory . Wide receiver Antonio Brown is already out recovering from a left calf injury Pittsburgh hopes will heal in time for the postseason.
"The expectation will be what it is," Tomlin said. "The people we put on the field will be expected to play and play winning football."
A commodity in short supply in Cleveland for the past quarter-century, never more so than in 2017.
Some things to look for as Pittsburgh tries for its sixth straight win in a one-sided series while the Browns try to avoid some unwanted history.
DRY ROAD: The Browns have lost 13 straight at Heinz Field and 20 consecutive road games dating to an Oct. 11, 2015 win at Baltimore. That's the most recent time Browns guard Joel Bitonio has experienced a win. He missed the last six games that season with an ankle injury, the final 11 with a serious foot injury last year and is 0-15 in 2017.
"It's been so long for me that I've played in a game that we won that it's like, `Man, I just can't get that feeling back,'" he said. "You want that feeling of winning and you want that chance and you're like, `What can we do to make it happen?' It's been tough."
The Lions (2007-10) hold the record for consecutive road losses with 26.
TITLE ON THE LINE: The sluggishness Bell showed in the opener, when he managed just 32 yards on 10 carries after skipping training camp while waiting to sign his franchise tender, has vanished. Bell has a shot to become the first Steeler since 1946 to lead the NFL in rushing ... if he plays. Bell trails Los Angeles Rams star Todd Gurley by 14 yards and Kansas City rookie Kareem Hunt by just 1. Gurley will skip the Rams' finale, meaning Bell could pass him if Tomlin opts to play his starters early while watching the scoreboard from New England.
RIVAL RESPECT: For the past few weeks, Browns running back Duke Johnson has honored injured Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier following touchdowns.
Johnson has dropped to a knee in prayer and signaled a "5" and "0" - Shazier wears No. 50 - with his hands in tribute to Shazier, who recently underwent spinal stabilization surgery after being hurt while making a tackle on Dec. 4 at Cincinnati. Johnson isn't close with Shazier, but he felt a kinship because of their shared Florida roots and as competitors.
Johnson's gesture has touched Tomlin.
"It's great to be in a business where that gets highlighted," Tomlin said. "Often times, that happens all around us, guys showing class in a lot of ways, but for whatever reason in today's sports society, we spend a lot of time talking about negativity. I'm glad that you guys (media members) are highlighting that. I tip my hat to Johnson for what he's doing."
NO "DEEBO": Lost in the emotionally charged reaction to Pittsburgh's surprising decision to cut five-time Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison last weekend is the fact the Steelers don't need the 39-year-old's services anymore. The Steelers enter the finale second in sacks, fourth in yards allowed and fifth in scoring defense. Pittsburgh's 50 sacks are the franchise's most since it racked up 51 in 2008, when Harrison was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.
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Updated December 28, 2017