Browns ride high into finale with Steelers (Jan 01, 2017)
Joe Thomas wept. Every player got a game ball. The Cleveland Browns were winners again, even if only for one week.
Yes, the Browns avoided the ignominy of becoming the third team to go winless in a season (Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers) when they defeated the San Diego Chargers 20-17 last week. By doing so, though, they jeopardized on not having the top pick in the NFL draft -- until San Francisco pulled out a last-second win.
Cleveland's season ends in Pittsburgh on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) while the Steelers are looking ahead to the postseason when they will host a wild card game against the Miami Dolphins or the Kansas City Chiefs Jan. 7 or 8 at Heinz Field.
So Week 17 comes down to this for the Browns, lose and secure the top pick (perhaps Myles Garrett, defensive end from Texas A&M) or beat Pittsburgh in a meaningless game and maybe lose out on the chance to draft Garrett.
Beat the 10-5 archrival Steelers -- the Browns will take that any time of the season no matter how it affects the draft. But easier said than done. The Steelers won the past 12 meetings in Pittsburgh and seven of the last eight encounters.
Pittsburgh won in Cleveland this year 24-9.
Because playing hard is one thing coach Hue Jackson has had the Browns do throughout this trying 1-14 season. He received the real game ball after Saturday's victory -- the team's first since Dec. 13, 2015.
"I know that 1-14 is nothing to celebrate, but as a veteran to these guys, for head coach Hue, it feels incredible," wide receiver Andrew Hawkins said. "He deserves it more than anything."
In winning the AFC North title by beating Baltimore 31-27 on Saturday, the Steelers scored 21 points in the final 12 minutes. With Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers will always be a threat.
"It's pretty special the way we won it," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who struggled throughout most of the game. "Especially after feeling the way I felt at a certain point in that game and feeling like you let guys down and you blew it. So to come back and win it is pretty special.
"I think we showed some fight, no quit. We just stick together. ... This is a total team win and even the special teams. It was just awesome."
The Steelers are riding a six-game win streak and won a fifth division title in coach Mike Tomlin's 10 years. But their season has been marked by turmoil, unusual for a Pittsburgh team. Tomlin was on the hot seat midway through the season and with the Steelers sitting at 4-5 the undercurrent grew.
And now amid the win streak, Tomlin remains a lightning rod when last week he was criticized by former Steelers' quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
Bradshaw said Tomlin was more cheerleader than coach. Tomlin said the comments were disrespectful before dropping in a shot at Bradshaw's intelligence level.
"Terms like cheerleader guy, to me, maybe fall outside of bounds of critique or criticism," Tomlin said during Tuesday's news conference. "They probably fall more toward the area of disrespect and unprofessional. But what do I know? I grew up a Dallas fan. Particularly a (Thomas) 'Hollywood' Henderson fan."
Henderson ridiculed Bradshaw back in 1979 when the Cowboys and Steelers were at the top of the NFL, saying this of Bradshaw: "He couldn't spell cat if you spotted him the C and the A."
So it's no wonder the Steelers have circled the wagons, were able to come from behind to beat the Ravens and are riding the current longest win streak in the league.
"There's going to be adversity over the course of the journey," Tomlin said. "We know that. We prepare for that. That's why we just continually work, regardless of outcome of games."
Big decisions await Tomlin Sunday. Does he rest star players to avoid injuries and risk losing momentum heading into the postseason? He has said he will take a very business-like approach to Sunday's game and do what he thinks is best for his team.
"As a staff, we're not going to live in our fears,'' Tomlin said. "We're not going to fear the what-ifs. When we step into stadiums, our goal is to win."
For a team that has nothing to lose, Sunday's game is one last opportunity to leave a good impression heading into an offseason where there are certain to be many changes.
Rookie Cody Kessler gets the start Sunday after Robert Griffin III suffered a concussion against the Chargers.
Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden was also knocked out of Sunday's game and is listed as questionable.
The Browns ended one streak Sunday but one of its star players can continue another against the Steelers. Thomas, the Browns emotional leader, has never missed an offensive snap in his 10-year career.