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AFC Playoffs: Pittsburgh Steelers to rest a bunch of starters in Week 17

Browns facing more COVID-19 issues

The Pittsburgh Steelers will look even less recognizable during Sunday’s matchup against the Cleveland Browns. Per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh will rest three more starters in their season finale, bringing the total to four players you’d otherwise normally see heavily involved.

Dulac reported that outside linebacker T.J. Watt, center Maurkice Pouncey, and defensive end Cam Heyward will all sit Sunday. They’ll join quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the bench; head coach Mike Tomlin announced Tuesday that the future Hall of Famer will sit in favor of Mason Rudolph, who gets his ninth career start against Cleveland. You might remember last season’s matchup of mayhem, where Browns defensive end Myles Garrett removed Rudolph’s helmet and swung it at him, later accusing the Steelers quarterback of calling him a racial slur.

The Browns, though, face issues far greater than potential animosity between their star and the opponent's backup. Per Adam Schefter, the team closed their facilities again this morning as “COVID issues and troubles mount.” Two players tested positive this morning, one of whom has been in isolation but was in close contact with someone outside of the building.

In better news for the Browns, the four wide receivers who missed last week’s game due to their corps’ mini outbreak are expected to rejoin the team this week once they can practice. But they can potentially return as early as Thursday.

As a refresher, last week’s matchup between the Browns and the New York Jets saw the wideout-less Browns lose by a touchdown to the other team from New Jersey. Had Cleveland utilized its run game a bit more effectively, perhaps it would have avoided the embarrassment.

The Steelers and the Buffalo Bills are tied for the two seed in the AFC after both teams won their games in Week 16—Pittsburgh in a thriller against Indianapolis; Buffalo in a thrashing of their old pals from New England. Of note, though, is that Buffalo holds the head-to-head tiebreaker; even a Pittsburgh win, if countered by a Buffalo win, would keep home-field advantage with the Bills. Sure, that advantage has been reduced to an afterthought for much of this season, but after yesterday’s news that New York State will allow 6,700 fans to attend next weekend’s home Wild Card game, the incentive feels somewhat magnified.

As for the Browns, who haven’t made it to the dance in 17 years, it’s a classic “win and you’re in” situation. They can still get in with a loss, though they’ll need a bit of help from the Indianapolis Colts, who play a Jacksonville Jaguars team that might as well already be sold out of Trevor Lawrence jerseys.