Although the Pittsburgh Steelers are tied atop the AFC North, winning the division won’t be easy.
Facing the Cleveland Browns in two of their final four games, however, should help their hopes.
The surging Steelers look to win for the eighth time in nine games and continue their dominance over the sputtering Browns on Thursday night at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh’s only blemish in its last eight games - a 23-20 loss to Baltimore on Nov. 6 - put a dent in its chances of winning a fourth division title in five years. The Steelers (9-3) are tied with the Ravens atop the North, but having been swept by their archrivals, Pittsburgh must finish with a better record to win the division.
Cleveland (4-8) could have helped the Steelers on Sunday with a home game against Baltimore, but not surprisingly came out with another sluggish performance and lost 24-10, dropping to 3-18 inside the division since 2008.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, put together one of its best performances of the season Sunday, beating Cincinnati 35-7 for its third straight victory. Ben Roethlisberger(notes) threw for 176 yards and two scores to Mike Wallace(notes), Rashard Mendenhall(notes) had two touchdowns and James Harrison(notes) collected three sacks to lead a defense that held the Bengals to a season-low point total.
The Steelers appear to have a good chance to keep pace with Baltimore.
Pittsburgh, which finishes its season at Cleveland, also visits NFC West-champion San Francisco and hosts two-win St. Louis. The Ravens still have games at San Diego and Cincinnati and home contests against Cleveland and winless Indianapolis.
Neither team appears to have a difficult remaining schedule, but given the Steelers’ history with the Browns, they may have an edge.
Pittsburgh has won 14 of 15 against Cleveland and seven in a row at Heinz Field since a 33-13 loss in 2003. It has won the last three in Pittsburgh by an average of 20.7 points.
In the two meetings last season, the Steelers outscored the Browns 69-19, with Roethlisberger passing for 537 yards with five touchdowns and an interception and Mendenhall scoring three TDs. The defense had 10 sacks and five interceptions.
Making matters worse for the Browns, the Steelers are playing well and are healthy - something Cleveland can’t claim.
Pittsburgh has held its last two opponents to single digits and forced eight turnovers during its winning streak after only getting four in its first nine games.
Offensively, the Steelers are averaging 116.3 rushing yards in their last three games after averaging 86.3 in their previous three.
“It’s getting closer to the playoffs and it’s time for us to get better,” said Wallace, who leads the Steelers in receptions (58), receiving yards (977) and receiving TDs (8).
Pittsburgh did play the final three quarters Sunday without LaMarr Woodley(notes) because of a tender left hamstring, but part of that decision had to do with the team up 28-7 at halftime. He is expected to play Thursday, and again could find himself on the sideline with his team up big.
The Browns had little luck moving the ball Sunday against Baltimore’s vaunted defense, finishing with 233 yards, including 59 on the ground. Cleveland’s defense also couldn’t stop the run, allowing the Ravens to rack up 290 rushing yards.
“You have to have thick skin and a short memory, and you move on,” coach Pat Shurmur said.
The Browns, 30th in total offense (290.7 yards per game) are preparing for a similar brand of football, however, from the Steelers, who are first in total defense (273.8), and running the ball with more consistency.
McCoy was injured Sunday on a hit by Ravens defensive end Arthur Rhodes. Although he missed only one play, the injury was initially considered severe enough to keep him sideline for this game. He is now expected to start, but his mobility will likely be limited.
McCoy, 0-7 within the division, has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in three straight games, but hasn’t received much help—Cleveland leads the league with 35 dropped passes.
He also might be without Peyton Hillis(notes) again after the running back strained his hip against Baltimore. Hillis rushed for 45 yards on 12 carries and caught a pass for 52 yards in his second game back after missing five straight with a hamstring injury.