Brows vs. Steelers meaningless matchup

Published 12:01 am Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Pittsburgh Steelers have nothing to lose, yet they say losing is exactly what they don’t want to do in a game that could set the course for their playoff run.

The rival Cleveland Browns can’t save their season. Or, likely, save coach Romeo Crennel’s job. They’re down to the last game of a rotten season, down to their fourth quarterback, down to their last chance to win until September — an eternity in a sport where the biggest games are only about to begin.

No, this Browns-Steelers game wasn’t supposed to come down to this.

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Neither team seems to possess many reasons to go all out in a late-December game that, if the NFL schedule makers’ intentions can be deciphered, was planned to decide the AFC North championship. The Steelers’ No. 2 AFC playoff seeding can’t change, win or lose, and the Browns (4-11) will get little out of finishing 5-11 rather than 4-12 even if they do win.

‘‘We’re really not playing for nothing,’’ Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said.

Then again, maybe they are. Playing for something, that is.

Flash back to a year ago and the Steelers, the AFC North champions as they are now, played Baltimore under similar circumstances. Those Ravens also were expected to push Pittsburgh for the division title, also were 4-11 and also were stuck in a long losing streak, a nine-game slide as opposed to these Browns’ five-game streak.

Even with nothing tangible to play for, the Ravens surprised the Steelers 27-21 for a victory they badly needed to carry into the offseason. Baltimore rebounded this season to go 10-5 and will make the playoffs by beating Jacksonville at home on Sunday.

There’s your incentive, Browns.

The Steelers followed that Baltimore loss last season by losing at home to Jacksonville a week later in the playoffs. They carried no momentum and not much offensive consistency in the postseason, and it showed.

There’s your incentive, Steelers.

‘‘It’s really about us going out there and sharpening our swords, getting ourselves ready,’’ defensive lineman Chris Hoke said.