The Browns, pummeled by their AFC North rivals from the beginning of the season through Week 16, have a chance to be a spoiler when they play the Steelers on the final Sunday of the regular season.
The Steelers beat the Browns 14-3 in Pittsburgh on Dec. 8 and knocked quarterback Colt McCoy out with a concussion. McCoy finished that game but was forced to sit out the next two. Seneca Wallace started against the Cardinals and Ravens and came up short both times.
McCoy was not cleared for practice Wednesday. Coach Pat Shurmur said the closer it gets to game time, the more he is leaning toward starting Wallace again if McCoy's status doesn't change. McCoy told him he wants to play Sunday.
The Ravens and Steelers are tied for first in the AFC North with 11-4 records. The Ravens would win the division by beating the Bengals in Cincinnati on Sunday, but if the Bengals win, the Steelers would win the division by beating the Browns. Along with that comes home-field advantage for at least one game and a first-round bye. The Ravens would win the division title if both teams finish with the same record.
Both teams need the week off after the regular season to get healthy. The Steelers, especially, could use the time to rest quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a high ankle sprain the same night McCoy suffered the concussion.
"We're focused on just getting a win, and if we kind of make the playoff race a little bit tougher for an opponent, especially in our division, so be it," middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. "We're trying to get that next win around here, and that's what we're focusing on, and we'll look at the playoff race and how teams are affected after the fact."
The Browns need to win just to match the 5-11 record they posted each of the last two seasons. That's a tall order for a team that put three more players on injured reserve last week, safety T.J. Ward, tight end Alex Smith and linebacker Titus Brown. In addition, wide receiver Jordan Norwood suffered a concussion in the Arizona game Dec. 18 and still cannot practice.
For Shurmur, upsetting the Steelers in the final game of the season would be a high note on what has been a dismal first season as head coach. Shurmur has taken blame for errors that were not his fault.
Last week in Cleveland's 20-14 loss to Baltimore, the Browns had a second-and-1 on the Ravens' 8-yard line with 57 seconds to play in the first half and no timeouts left, trailing 17-0. They failed to score because Wallace called a running play with 11 seconds left, even though Shurmur was yelling "Clock, clock, clock!" Peyton Hillis was stopped for no gain, and time expired before another play was run.
Shurmur would not discuss what he tells players privately or in meeting rooms. Players say Shurmur does not chastise individuals in front of teammates. Instead, position coaches point out flaws in position meetings.
"A lot of conversations happen," Shurmur said. "A lot of things get said between the head coach and the player I think that in some ways is sacred. Now, if you go ask them and they want to tell you -- I'm going to tell them not to, but ...
"I'm not lying to you. I feel responsible for everything that happens. And if we put the players in a situation where they don't execute the way that we see fit, then I'm ultimately responsible."
SERIES HISTORY: 118th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 61-56. The Browns still have an edge over the Steelers at home, 35-23, but the only time they've beaten the Steelers in Cleveland in the last 11 years was in 2009.
--When the Browns and Steelers met in Pittsburgh on Dec. 8, the Steelers won 14-3, but that is not how the game will be remembered. Colt McCoy was crushed, helmet to facemask, by Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Two plays later, McCoy was back in the game.
McCoy developed concussion symptoms in the locker room after the game. The NFL and the players union investigated how the Browns treated McCoy medically on the sideline. He injured his left hand on the same play and was treated for that before re-entering the game.
The Browns' explanation was that no one from the medical staff saw the Harrison hit. The NFL decided not to punish the Browns, but the result of what happened is now a certified athletic trainer will be in the press box at every NFL game. His job is to alert the medical staff of a team if he sees that player take a hit to the head. He does not have authority to prevent a player from returning to the game.
Because of what happened in Pittsburgh, doctors now will be permitted to carry cell phones on the sideline so they can communicate with other doctors if necessary. Cell phones on the sideline were prohibited before the policy change.
--Holidays and Browns-Steelers games in Cleveland are a bad mix for the Browns. The rivals met on Christmas Eve in 2005 in Cleveland. The Steelers won 41-0, and by the end of the game, Steelers fans outnumbered Browns fans 10 to one.
Season finales against the Steelers don't work out for the Browns, either. The two teams met in the final game of 2008 in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers won 31-0. The defeat dropped the Browns' record to 4-12. Cleveland would be 4-12 again if the Steelers beat them Sunday.
Last year, the Browns and Steelers closed out the season in Cleveland, and again the Steelers won in lopsided fashion, 41-9. That was Eric Mangini's final game as head coach.
--Colt McCoy is 0-3 against the Steelers. In his two most recent games against them, he threw one touchdown pass and five interceptions.
BY THE NUMBERS: 4 -- The Browns have scored four rushing touchdowns in 2011. They scored 13 last year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I can point out five games that we should have won. But as Coach Dick Jauron said, 'What should have happened, happened.' We lost the game. At the end of the day, our record is 4 and whatever. So we didn't win those games, we didn't get it done." -- Safety Mike Adams.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Kaluka Maiava, a core special teams player for the Browns, has been a starting outside linebacker since a broken hand landed Scott Fujita on injured reserve five weeks ago.
Now Maiava has a broken left hand, but he is determined to play Sunday despite the injury Sunday.
"Just put another cast on it," Maiava said. "I'll be good to go."
The injury is to the bone connecting to his index finger. He was hurt on the opening kickoff in Baltimore and continued to play.
--QB Colt McCoy has not passed his concussion test, so he did not practice Wednesday.
--RB Montario Hardesty has had a lost season. He has played in only one of the last eight games because of a lingering calf injury. That game was against the Steelers, and he carried 11 times for 24 yards.
--RT Tony Pashos was ill Tuesday and was held out of practice Wednesday. He is expected to play Sunday.
--WR Jordan Norwood did not practice Wednesday because he is still bothered by a concussion.
--S Usama Young will make his eighth start of the season Sunday. He was signed as a free agent after four seasons in New Orleans, during which he started a total of six games.
--LT Joe Thomas was voted to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time in his five-year career. The only other player in team history to make the Pro Bowl the first five years was Jim Brown.
--LB D'Qwell Jackson is a first alternate on the AFC Pro Bowl team behind the Ravens' Ray Lewis and the Chiefs' Derrick Johnson.
--WR Carlton Mitchell would get more playing time if Jordan Norwood cannot play.
--QB Seneca Wallace would start if Colt McCoy isn't cleared to play.
GAME PLAN: The Browns have to do everything they can to prevent the Steelers from making a big strike. That strategy worked right until the end when the teams met in Pittsburgh, but a 79-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown with 2:52 to play was the clincher in the Steelers' 14-3 victory.
Peyton Hillis was nursing a hip injury three weeks ago, but he is feeling better. He rushed for 99 yards against the Cardinals and 112 against the Ravens. The Browns would like to make him a focal part of the offense again.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Browns CB Sheldon Brown vs. Steelers WR Antonio Brown -- This is really a pick-your-poison matchup for the Browns. They don't want to ask Sheldon Brown to go man-to-man with Mike Wallace, so they have to pair him with Antonio Brown. However, Antonio Brown beat Joe Haden on a 79-yard touchdown play the last time the teams met.
Browns C Alex Mack vs. Steelers NT Casey Hampton -- The Browns want to run the ball Sunday. That could happen if Mack gets a good push on Hampton.