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Still finding ways to enjoy football

This is the type of weekend that football fans around the Tri-State Area have been looking forward to for a long time.

It’s playoff time in the National Football League and college football is preparing to end its strangest season ever with the national championship game.

And the games will carry a little extra intrigue for our region.

The Steelers and Browns will meet in the final game of wildcard weekend, while Ohio State will face Alabama in Miami with the college title on the line.

Sunday’s game at Heinz Field will be a rematch of last week’s regular-season finale in Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Field. The Browns prevailed, 24-22, against a Steelers team that allowed many of its star players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, to skip the game and remain in Pittsburgh. It was a win that allowed the Browns to finish at 11-5 and earn a playoff spot for the first time in 18 years.

Pittsburgh will be looking to straighten its late-season slump and make another Super Bowl run. The Steelers won their first 11 games before losing four of their last five to finish at 12-4, which still allowed them to claim the AFC North championship.

Make no mistake — it’s a big game. There are some who think that much of the luster has been lost from the fabled Steelers-Browns rivalry, but the NFL obviously doesn’t share that opinion — it scheduled the battle for 8 p.m. Sunday on NBC, what the league considers to be its premiere spot, the place it wants to be able to showcase the top game of the week.

Ohio State, meanwhile, will carry a 7-0 record into Monday’s College Football Playoff Championship Game in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. The Buckeyes will be looking to carry the momentum generated from their Jan. 1 49-28 win over Clemson in a semifinal game into their contest with Alabama, 12-0.

Like everything else in our lives today, the specter of COVID-19 will hang over both games. The Browns have struggled through positive tests and have seen their training facility closed several times in the last few weeks. Coach Kevin Stefanski, who has received credit for turning the team around and helping quarterback Baker Mayfield improve his performance dramatically, will be forced to miss the game because he has contracted the virus.

Ohio State, meanwhile, has had coronavirus issues of its own, and it’s unlikely we will know until shortly before Monday’s 8:15 p.m. kickoff how its roster will have been affected. That’s nothing new for the Buckeyes, though — they were forced to navigate through a pandemic-shortened Big Ten season that saw several games canceled.

In normal years, this weekend would represent an opportunity for fans to enjoy the games with their friends and family members in front of their home TVs or at a bar or restaurant. COVID-19 protocols urging against large gatherings, and early establishment closings required under mandates in Ohio and Pennsylvania (which don’t apply in West Virginia) will limit other options for watching the games.

Despite all of that, we’re confident we all will be able to find a way to enjoy football this weekend.

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