The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns will meet for the second straight Sunday, but it would be difficult to call it a true rematch.
Not just because this time it's at Heinz Field. And not just because this time it's a wild-card playoff game.
Both teams will have some key differences Sunday night from the Browns' 24-22 win on Jan. 3.
Pittsburgh (12-4) had already clinched the AFC North title before last week's game and rested four key starters -- quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey, linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cam Heyward. They are expected to play this week.
Cleveland (11-5) this time around will be without head coach Kevin Stefanski, who tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the Browns' first playoff game since 2002.
Also out is starting guard Joel Bitonio, who is on the reserve/COVID-19 list, apparently because of contact tracing, and defensive end Olivier Vernon (Achilles tendon), who was placed on injured reserve.
Roethlisberger, who will be playing in his 22nd playoff game but first since 2017, refused to give Pittsburgh an edge given the nature of the one-and-done postseason -- and that the Steelers closed the season 1-4.
"I think every player should approach this playoff game like it could be their last playoff game ever," he said. "I think it's prudent for every player to take that mindset and approach. I know I am because nothing is guaranteed in the game, or this world.
"Half of the teams in the NFL aren't playing this week, so it's an honor to have the opportunity."
Cleveland's special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will serve as interim coach.
"The players understand that it doesn't really matter who the head coach is on Sunday. They know how we play," Stefanski said while participating in an interview session despite his positive virus test. He said he feels fine and is coaching remotely this week.
"This team is not in my image; it's the Cleveland Browns. We've established an identity. We did it back in the spring. We told the guys how we were going to play. We made sure we brought players in there that fit that mold. And I think the guys understand perfectly how we play and how we win."
Stefanski is the Browns' offensive play-caller, leading a unit that ranked third in rushing in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will take over those duties.
"AVP has been a huge part of our offense's success," Stefanski said.
"He is a huge part of play calling. There is a ton of dialogue occurring between me, AVP and the rest of the offensive staff. He knows the things that we believe in. He knows how we play. He spends every waking moment with the quarterback (Baker Mayfield), which is important when you are talking about trying to get him in a rhythm and comfort level. I have a ton of confidence in AVP's ability to get the job done," Stefanski said.
The Browns were relegated to holding a virtual walk-through Wednesday.
Pittsburgh will not only get its rested starters back, but could also have others return. Guard Matt Feiler (pectoral) and linebacker Robert Spillane (knee) practiced Wednesday and could come off the reserve/injured list and play Sunday.
Safety Terrell Edmunds (shoulder), who missed Sunday's game, was a full participant in practice, while kicker Chris Boswell (groin) was limited. However, Pittsburgh cornerback Joe Haden is out after testing positive for COVID-19.
--Field Level Media
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