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A season hanging in the balance

Fans of professional football should have seen this coming.

While area residents have been pointing to Sunday’s showdown between Pittsburgh and Cleveland as being a key game since the National Football League schedule was first released, the game, as it turns out, will have little meaning for the Steelers but likely will mean everything for the Browns.

Pittsburgh will enter the 1 p.m. contest in FirstEnergy Stadium a week after snapping a three-game losing skid with a 28-24 come-from-behind win over Indianapolis. That win allowed the team, which already had clinched a playoff berth thanks to its 11-0 start, to secure the AFC North title. It was a victory over the Colts that came in a way fans in the Tri-State Area have come to expect — with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger delivering strikes down the field to help his team erase a 24-7 halftime deficit.

Cleveland, however, carries a 10-5 record after suffering a 23-16 loss to the New York Jets, who raised their record to 2-13. It was a loss that came in a most Browns-like manner, with Baker Mayfield fumbling on a fourth-down quarterback sneak while possibly closing in for a tying score with 1:18 left in the fourth quarter of a game in which Cleveland had to play shorthanded thanks to COVID-19 issues.

As a result, the Browns, who just a week ago appeared poised to earn a playoff berth for the first time since 2002, now are faced with a narrow path that could lead them to a wild card slot. They can beat the Steelers or hope other teams lose their final regular-season games Sunday. The only other scenarios that put Cleveland in the post-season would require the Colts to lose at Jacksonville or to have Tennessee lose at Houston and Baltimore defeat Cincinnati, the Colts win and Miami defeat Buffalo.

If Mayfield’s lost football at the end of the Jets game (which was recovered by running back Kareen Hunt but by rule could not be advanced and was returned to the spot of the fumble which was short of the first down) becomes known as the Fumble II, it will not be a surprise, and will join a list of other miscues that weigh heavily on the hearts of Cleveland fans.

Included on that list is the Fumble, in which Browns’ back Earnest Byner lost the football while trying to score a touchdown against Denver in the 1987 AFC title game.

That play came one year after the Drive, in which Denver quarterback John Elway used 5:02 to lead his team on a 15-play, 98-yard touchdown march to tie the 1986 AFC championship game with 37 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Broncos took a 23-20 overtime win.

Those losses followed the infamous Red Right 88 pass from Brian Sipe that was intercepted in the end zone by Oakland’s Mike Davis with less than a minute left in what would become a 14-12 loss by the Browns in a 1981 divisional playoff game.

And they all came before the Move, the 1995 decision by then-owner Art Modell to take the team to Baltimore — a transfer that was somewhat mitigated by an agreement that allowed the team’s name, records and intellectual property to stay in Cleveland until the new Browns began play in 1999.

While the Browns find themselves in what amounts to a must-win game if they are to advance to the playoffs, the Steelers will have the luxury of being able to rest their players if they choose, knowing their division championship is secure. It’s still the Steelers vs. the Browns, however, and even though the rivalry has somewhat diminished — the Steelers hold a 36-7-1 advantage over the Browns since Cleveland’s return to the field, with the most recent win, a 38-7 victory, coming Oct. 18 at Heinz Field — it creates an added incentive to watch — especially with the knowledge that the Steelers can put an end to the Browns’ season.

A one-game, season-ending battle with a playoff spot on the line — it’s what football fans often hope for — and one we’ve had a suspicion might be coming since the beginning of the year.

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