Plenty at stake for Steelers, Browns in AFC North hierarchy – TribLIVE

Cameron Heyward had an interesting way this week of describing the Pittsburgh Steelers’ AFC North showdown Sunday with the Cleveland Browns.

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“I know it’s not a late-night game,” Heyward said, “but it’s a prime-time game.”

By definition, it actually isn’t. The NFL schedule makers decided against flexing this matchup between division contenders to a late-afternoon or night-time television slot. Kickoff will commence at 1 p.m. as originally planned.

Still, the All-Pro defensive lineman’s point is well taken. CBS thought enough of the pairing to send its top broadcast crew of Jim Nantz, Tony Romo and “operational zone” reporter Tracy Wolfson to Heinz Field.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has referred to the game pitting the 4-0 Steelers against the 4-1 Browns as a “five-star matchup,” and his players have copied the phrase to magnify its importance.

The Steelers haven’t gotten off to this kind of start in 41 years, and one would have to go back 26 seasons — to the original iteration of the franchise — to find the last time the Browns were 4-1.

Adding to its importance is the loser could fall behind the 4-1 Baltimore Ravens in the division pecking order.

“When we start playing AFC North football, Coach T always emphasizes how that is important and how you have to rule the division to get to the playoffs,” said cornerback Joe Haden, who spent his first seven seasons with the Browns before joining the Steelers in 2017. “With the Browns being so good and the Ravens also, this division being so good … it’s going to be exciting.

“There’s a whole lot going on, but I think it’s going to be a really, really intense football game.”

Among the things “going on” are these subplots:

History lesson

The Browns are trying to break a losing streak in Pittsburgh that dates 2003, the last time the Steelers had a losing record. Which means they have never beaten Ben Roethlisberger, who was at Miami (Ohio) that fall, at Heinz Field.

The Steelers are 35-7-1 against the Browns since Cleveland returned to the NFL in 1999, and Tomlin has a 21-5 record in the turnpike series. The Browns also are the only team not to win the AFC North since it was configured in 2002.

“This is AFC North football, and you can say what you want about past records and times played, but those are previous years,” Roethlisberger said. “They are a good football team, really good. They’ve got a really good defense. A lot of those guys — I looked at their roster, they only have two guys that have 10 years of experience in the league.

“It’s not like these guys have been playing us for years and years and years and are worrying about how many times the Steelers have won.”

Fresh start

Freddie Kitchens ended a streak of six Browns coaches, dating to 2008, who were fired within a day of losing to the Steelers in the second meeting of a season. Kitchens had the Browns in contention for the No. 6 playoff berth when the teams met at Heinz Field in December. At 5-6, the Browns were a game behind the Steelers, but Kitchens couldn’t get them any closer. The Steelers widened the gap with a 20-13 victory.

Poor Kitchens didn’t make it beyond his first season in Cleveland. He was fired immediately after wrapping a 6-10 record.

Like so many of his predecessors, first-year coach Kevin Stefanski doesn’t have a firm grasp of the rivalry, although it looks like he might be around long enough to find out.

“You probably have to go through it once,” Stefanski said. “I know it’s important to our fans and to the fans in Pittsburgh. It’s a big game. Two really good teams are playing. I get all that. We’re focused on playing a good football team and playing at our best.”

Given the Browns’ start, optimism seems to be higher this season than after Cleveland won the first matchup, 21-7, last year at FirstEnergy Stadium.

“It’s going to be fun going into this game,” said Browns offensive lineman Chris Hubbard, a former Steeler. “I think for the most part the intensity of this game is going to be an all-time high. We’re a different unit this year, we have a different team. We’re a very hungry team this year.”

Head games

The most prominent storyline, of course, involves Myles Garrett’s first game against the Steelers since he conked quarterback Mason Rudolph on his unprotected head with Rudolph’s helmet near the end of the first matchup last season.

Garrett was suspended for the rematch a few weeks later at Heinz Field and comes into this game as a defensive player of the year candidate with five sacks. He’ll be tasked with bringing down Roethlisberger this year while Rudolph watches from the sideline.

Both teams have downplayed the reunion, deferring to the importance of the game at hand.

“We’re completely past it,” linebacker Vince Williams said. “We have enough problems to deal this year. We’re not looking back. We’re not looking in the rear-view mirror about what happened last year.”

QB health

Since returning from right elbow surgery, Roethlisberger has gotten off to the best start of his 17-year career, throwing 10 touchdown passes against one interception with a career-best 110.4 passer rating.

While Roethlisberger has erased most doubts about his throwing ability, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is dealing with bruised ribs from the Week 5 game against Indianapolis.

Mayfield vowed to play, saying “Momma didn’t raise no wuss.” But that was before he was limited in practice the entire week and was listed as questionable against the Steelers.

Heyward made it be known that the Steelers defense will make its presence felt if Mayfield suits up for the game.

“As a D-line and as a defense, you want to make sure the quarterback feels you,” Heyward said. “You want to make sure he’s thinking about the rush. … He’s going to come out there and try to be a warrior for his team, but it’s up to us to make him think about his injury during the game.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at jrutter@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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