The Pittsburgh Steelers are in unfamiliar territory under coach Mike Tomlin: eliminated from postseason contention. The Cleveland Browns have become too accustomed to missing out on the playoffs, and mass changes in the organization could be on the way as a result.
On Sunday the Steelers will host the Browns, with Cleveland turning to inexperienced quarterback Thad Lewis as it looks for its first season sweep of the series since 1988.
Pittsburgh (7-8) will miss the playoffs for the fourth time since 2001 after Sunday’s 13-10 loss to Cincinnati marked its third straight defeat. It’s the second time the Steelers won’t be in the postseason since Tomlin took over in 2007.
But Tomlin said he won’t coach any differently this week. The only changes to Pittsburgh’s lineup will be by way of injury, not to get a look at younger players with the future in mind.
“This is an opportunity to play and play to win, to get this sour taste out of our mouth,” said Tomlin, who is 62-33 in the regular season. “I am not going to approach it with that (look-ahead to 2013) mentality.”
One Steeler with a particularly sour taste in his mouth is Ben Roethlisberger, who threw interceptions that led to the opponents’ game-winning field goals in each of the last two games. Often considered one of the league’s most clutch quarterbacks, Roethlisberger shouldered much of the blame for Pittsburgh’s struggles in close games this season.
The Steelers are 3-5 in games decided by three points or less.
“A lot of it just has to do with me not playing well enough down the stretch,” he said. “Fourth-quarter drives or last-minute throws, I’m just not making it happen, so my best answer would be that I just didn’t play well enough.”
Roethlisberger’s eight interceptions are the second fewest of his career, but four have come in the last three games since he returned from shoulder and rib injuries sustained against Kansas City on Nov. 12, leading some to believe he still shouldn’t be playing.
He’s thrown six touchdowns during the same span. Roethlisberger tallied 17 TDs and four picks in his nine games before being injured.
“We can talk about that in the offseason maybe, but I feel good enough to play,” he said.
Roethlisberger will play without one of his favorite targets, as Pro Bowler Heath Miller will have surgery on Thursday to repair a torn ACL and MCL suffered in Sunday’s loss. Miller’s 19 red-zone targets are tied for the NFL’s fourth-most and his eight receiving touchdowns are tied for third among tight ends.
The Browns (5-10) can’t avoid their 11th 10-plus loss season in the last 14 years after Sunday’s 34-12 loss at Denver. A victory on Sunday would be Cleveland’s first in Pittsburgh since a 33-13 win on Oct. 5, 2003, and would give coach Pat Shurmur a two-win improvement in his second season with the team.
It might not be enough to give Shurmur another year, as new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner have promised to revamp the organization, which has reached the playoffs twice since 1990.
Such moves might be to the chagrin of some players, like Josh Cribbs, who is playing under his third coach in eight years.
“Every year you have a constant rebuilding process, not a good recipe for successful football,” said Cribbs, whose 12.2 yards per punt return rank fourth.
The Browns may need a major boost from Cribbs to put some points on the board considering their inexperience under center. Thad Lewis, who has never taken an NFL snap, will start at quarterback with Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy both nursing sprained right shoulders.
Josh Johnson, signed earlier in the week, is expected to be Lewis’ backup.
“He’s been preparing himself to play all year,” Shurmur said of Lewis, who last started a game in 2009 as a senior at Duke. “What we expect is he goes out and plays winning football.”
To make matters worse, Lewis won’t be able to turn and hand the ball to Trent Richardson, who was carted off the field in Denver because of a left ankle injury. Richardson, who is tied for second in the league with 11 rushing TDs, will finish his rookie season 50 yards shy of 1,000.
Richardson ran for 85 yards and a TD and the Browns forced eight turnovers in a 20-14 home win against the Steelers on Nov. 25. That was only Cleveland’s second victory in the past 18 meetings.