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NBC Sports Predictor

Sunday Night 7: Browns-Steelers

by Will Gray
Updated On: January 9, 2021, 10:18 am ET

It's a playoff edition of Sunday Night 7, this time pitting division rivals against each other for the third time this season.

Play for FREE for your chance to win or split a $100,000 jackpot every contest. Download the NBC Sports Predictor app to join the party right now. This week there are two contests in the Predictor app, the second featuring the primetime battle between the Cleveland Browns and the team they narrowly beat a week ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Here are the 7 questions for Sunday night's tilt at Heinz Field:

#1 Baker Mayfield passing yards? Passing touchdowns?

< 175, 175-199, 200-229, 230-264, 265-299, 300+

0-1, 2, 3, 4+

This game has an extra wrinkle in that not only do these teams know each other quite well, they played just last week. The Browns eked out a win, 24-22, to make the playoffs for the first time in 18 years. But that was against a Steelers team that had little to lose, and Mayfield will face a much more difficult test this week as the scene shifts east from Cleveland to Pittsburgh. Mayfield threw for only 196 yards last week against the Steelers, and he managed just 119 yards through the air the last time he played at Heinz Field. Complicating matter further is the absence of Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski and multiple offensive assistants will miss the game after positive COVID-19 tests. The Browns showed last week that they can utilize a balanced gameplan to beat Pittsburgh, but they'll need more out of their quarterback this time around if they're going to remain competitive. Mayfield had averaged 314 yards passing in the four games prior to last week, but that seems like a lofty target. Bank on something in the 240-yard range along with one passing touchdown, which was what he threw for in each of the first two games against Pittsburgh this season.


#2 Ben Roethlisberger passing yards? Passing touchdowns?

< 200, 200-234, 235-264, 265-299, 300-324, 325+

0, 1, 2, 3, 4+

While Cleveland has developed a more balanced approach, there's no doubt about the fact that the Steelers' offense flows through the right arm of Roethlisberger. The veteran has thrown at least 46 passes in five of his last seven games, which does not include last week's game which he sat out given the Steelers had already clinched the AFC North. Roethlisberger was limited to 162 yards on 22 attempts earlier this year against Cleveland, but those were season lows for both tallies. He'll need to shine if the Steelers are to advance, and four of his last eight games ended with more than 300 yards passing. As with Mayfield, that seems a tad high given they could lean more on the run game in the second half based on certain game flow situations. The stat line he put up earlier this year against Jacksonville, throwing for 267 yards and two touchdowns, seems about right against a defense that ranked 22nd in the league this year in passing yards allowed.


#3 Nick Chubb rushing yards? Rushing touchdowns?

< 65, 65-79, 80-94, 95-109, 110-124, 125+

0, 1, 2+

Chubb was a huge factor in the Week 17 matchup between these two teams, rushing for 108 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Nearly half of that (47 yards) came on a single carry, but it still shows that Cleveland can run on a team that allowed 4.3 yards per carry this season. Chubb didn't play in the earlier game against the Steelers, and he'll likely be a focal point of Mike Tomlin's club in practice this week. Factor in that he did a good portion of his work in the previous five games as a receiver in the backfield, and I'm not sold that he'll eclipse (or even approach) the 100-yard plateau. I expect he'll come in just below his season-long average of 88.9 yards rushing (let's call it 82) and get into the end zone once. Chubb has 12 rushing touchdowns in 12 games this season and has scored exactly once on the ground in each of the Browns' last three games.


#4 First touchdown of the game?

Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt, James Conner, Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Any other Browns player, Any other Steelers player

After resting several starters last week (and still almost knocking their rivals out of the playoffs) I expect the Steelers to come out strong in the rubber match. Both teams are among the league's worst in first-quarter scoring, so don't expect an incredibly high-powered start to the game, but I do expect that the Steelers get to paydirt first while protecting home field. And if that's the case, it's overwhelmingly likely that they'll do so through the air. Claypool leads the way for Pittsburgh with 11 touchdowns this season and seems like the most likely candidate to grab the first touchdown from Roethlisberger. If you want to take the contrarian route, Chubb's 12 scores are the most among the Browns' options on the board.


#5 Most receiving yards in second quarter?

Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Austin Hooper, Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Any other Browns player, Any other Steelers player

This might be the toughest question of the bunch, and it may come as a surprise that Johnson has the highest yards per game of this group at 61.4. He has been a bright spot in the second half of the season as Roethlisberger has begun to throw more often, and he racked up 96 yards receiving last week in Cleveland on just three catches. Should he and Big Ben connect on another big pass in the second quarter that could easily be enough to push him over the edge in this category. The safest option on the other side might be Landry, whose six targets last week against the Steelers was the first time in five games he had fewer than eight targets. But Landry's catches are more of the short-yardage variety, and while Roethlisberger has connected most with Claypool for touchdowns he has clearly developed a recent affinity with Johnson. Should he come close to approaching the 14 targets he received in Week 16 against the Colts, he could be the man to beat for this one.


#6 Longest play (rushing or receiving) of second half?

< 20, 20-25, 26-29, 30-34, 35-39, 40-44, 45-49, 50-59, 60+

Mayfield didn't have a ton of yardage through the air last week, but he did connect for a 42-yard completion while Chubb broke free for a 47-yard run. The long-play potential for the Steelers is primarily through the air, although Roethlisberger has had a completion of at least 40 yards in only one of his last six games. The Steelers may be the home team and betting favorites, but the greater home run potential seemingly lies with the visitors. A play in the 45-49 yard range doesn't seem out of the question for Cleveland, and it could come either through the air or on the ground.


#7 Winner? Margin of victory?

Cleveland Browns or Pittsburgh Steelers? 

1-2, 3, 4-5, 6, 7, 8-9, 10-11, 12-13, 14, 15-16, 17-18, 19-20, 21+

It's been 18 years since Cleveland last played a playoff game, which ironically was also against Pittsburgh, and 26 years since they last won in the postseason (while led by an up-and-coming coach named Bill Belichick). The timing of the positive tests of Stefanski and others is rather unfortunate, and the betting line adjusted accordingly to make the Steelers 6-point favorites. A playoff run by the upstart Browns would rival Buffalo or Washington as one of the biggest surprises of the postseason, but it seems like elements continue to conspire against one of the NFL's most snake-bitten franchises. Roethlisberger has been shaky at times in recent weeks, but don't lose sight of the fact that this Steelers team started the season 11-0. While Cleveland won the battle last week to clinch a playoff berth, Pittsburgh will win the war Sunday night. Steelers advance in a close one, 28-24.

Will Gray

Will Gray joined Golf Channel in 2007 and currently serves as a staff writer for GolfChannel.com. Gray has been covering fantasy golf since 2012 and is a regular contributor to the Golf Central blog and covers several PGA Tour events each year. He's also a regular contributor to several digital properties on GolfChannel.com, including Stat Man, On the Clock, Fantasy Central, Grill Room and the Monday Scramble podcast.