PITTSBURGH — When November began, the Pittsburgh Steelers were lifeless and listless at 2-6, searching for a chance to get back to “respectability,” as longtime coach Mike Tomlin put it.
The Steelers did more than that over the following two months. They’ve entered the final week of what once appeared to be a lost season with an outside chance at making the playoffs.
The only people not stunned by a second-half surge that seemed unlikely at Halloween might be the guys in black and gold who will host Cleveland on Sunday. Pittsburgh (8-8) needs a victory over the Browns (7-9) and losses by Miami and New England to reach the playoffs for a third straight year.
“I don’t get surprised,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “We put in the work for a reason. We come ready every week to get better. (We’re) not without our faults but I embrace it all and this team does. We’re not surprised by where we’re at. But we’ve just got to keep growing.”
Pittsburgh has done that as well as nearly any team over the last two months. The Steelers have won five of six to enter Week 18 playing meaningful football, just as they almost always have under Tomlin, who has a chance to avoid the first losing season of his 16-year career.
Some teams falter and then fold when they appear buried at midseason. Not the Steelers.
“The short answer is they’re not us,” Heyward said. “The long answer is Coach T prepares us. Our coaches do a hell of a job getting us ready and then the players all buy in.”
Cleveland’s season has been far more erratic, though the Browns are 3-2 since Deshaun Watson took over at quarterback. Watson is coming off a three-touchdown performance in last week’s win over Washington. His indoctrination into his new team’s longtime rivalry will come with an opportunity to not only spoil Pittsburgh’s slim playoff hopes but also assure the Browns of finishing ahead of the Steelers in the AFC North standings for the first time since 1989.
While both teams would finish at 8-9 if the Browns should win, Cleveland would be third in the division by virtue of sweeping the season series with Pittsburgh.
“For us to get a second win against them in Pittsburgh would be a big thing for us,” Browns center Joel Bitonio said. “We’re treating it like a very important game for us. I know they have playoff implications, they have to win and get a little bit of help. But regardless of that, I think both teams will come out firing anyway. We know it’s going to be a big challenge, but I think we’re up for it.”
Steelers star edge rusher T.J. Watt sat out the Week 3 loss to Cleveland with a partially torn chest muscle. It’s about the only time the Browns have stopped him.
Watt single-handedly destroyed the Browns in last season’s matchup in Pittsburgh, recording four sacks as the Steelers pounded former Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Watt inflicted his damage in a matchup against reserve right tackle James Hudson, who will get a chance at redemption this week with starter Jack Conklin out for the finale with an ankle injury. The Browns will assist Hudson in any way possible.
“He’s a guy who you have to obviously be aware of and spend extra attention and extra time with and help in protection,” Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said of Watt, who 14 1/2 sacks in nine career games against Cleveland. “We understand that. There are plays where we are not going to be able to do that based on situations where we have to stand up and block him.”
Pittsburgh’s steady climb back into contention has worked in lockstep with the improved play of rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett.
After a mistake-prone opening month as the starter — a span in which he threw eight interceptions — Pickett has cut down on the miscues. He’s been picked off just once over his last seven games, and he had the highlight of his season last Sunday against Baltimore when he connected with Najee Harris for a last-minute, game-winning touchdown.
Regardless of how Sunday turns out, with an offense that doesn’t have a skill position player older than 26, Pickett is confident better days are ahead.
“We think we can be something,” Pickett said. “It all sounds good but we have to put it together. I think if we continue to work together, the future is bright for us. I’m excited for what it holds.”
Browns running back Nick Chubb has a chance to do something that many failed attempting before him — catch Jim Brown.
Chubb needs 52 yards to join Brown as the only backs in Cleveland history to rush for 1,500 yards in a season. Widely regarded as the best runner in NFL history, Brown reached the plateau three times during his Hall of Fame career.
Of course, the humble Chubb, who is also 47 yards from a career high (1,494) downplayed moving into such elite company. Bitonio, however, said it would mean something to the entire team.
“Anything for Chubb,” Bitonio said. “He’s just the epitome of a teammate. He works hard. He does everything right. I love blocking for the guy. I’ve told him before, he’s one of my favorite teammates. And it we can get him to that class with Jim Brown, arguably the GOAT running back, it’s special.”
Browns at Steelers, 1 p.m., 1290, 95.7
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