Collier: Uncertainty is a sure thing

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At their cavernous indoor practice facility on South Water Street, even amid the aural assault of artificial crowd noise that prepares the Steelers for so-called hostile environments, all traces of tangible desperation were absent this week amid a workaday camouflage.

Be not fooled; this is a desperate team at a desperate time, a desperate team fully ready for that most desperate of measures -- that's right, it's going to Cleveland.

The cold shores of Lake Erie are the most reliable Steelers destination when it comes to pulling a victory out of choppy waters. They cast their lines every year and yank out something, even an ugly little fish of a win with whiskers and perhaps a third eye, such as a 13-9 species a year ago that wasn't boated until a Browns pass fell incomplete in the end zone on the final play. Sometimes it's a prize game fish, like the 43-0 trophy from 1999, the kind of creature you mount in the game room in case some interior design majors from the local college happen to come by.

Only once in the past 11 years, on a viciously cold night in December 2009, were the Steelers foiled by an ill-advised ice-fishing mission that saw their playoff hopes succumb to hypothermia.

"Obviously," Steelers safety Ryan Clark was saying as practice ended Friday. "They know we have a lot of guys out, so that's going to give them confidence."

If it does, it'll be the first thing anyone's been confident about all week regarding today's 1 o'clocker. Even the bookmakers couldn't so much as post a betting line until sometime Friday, when the Steelers finally emerged as a 1-point favorite, 2 at the most.

Uncertainty pervades every possible story line for this 119th regular-season meeting of the Steelers and Browns, starting with the fact that the oldest man in either uniform will be the starting quarterback for the Steelers.

Charlie Batch will be 38 in 10 days. He is Mike Tomlin's backup backup quarterback. He's one of the few quarterbacks in the league whose age can deflect attention from that of Cleveland's Brandon Weeden, who happens to be a 29-year-old rookie.

Batch's most recent start came Christmas Eve 2011, a 27-0 victory against the St. Louis Rams in which he went 15 for 22 and posted a passer rating of 79.4, hardly magnificent but better than the late-2011 version of Ben Roethlisberger, whose final three performances of the season measured out at 52.3 (at San Francisco), 73.0 (at Cleveland), and 75.9 (at Denver in a postseason one-night stand).

Should Batch become the third Steelers quarterback in three weeks to exit in pain, you'll see Brian Hoyer, the backup backup's backup.

With Batch running one offense and Hoyer running another this week in practice, it was hard to pick out the scout team.

The correlative story line is that the Browns (2-8) are a fast-improving team with five losses by seven points or fewer, a team that rang up seven sacks to force the Dallas Cowboys into overtime last week in Texas.

Here's the problem with that theory: Just like the Browns, the Cowboys stink. Their next act was to lose at home to the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving. But if you saw the Browns-Cowboys hair pull, you might agree that it was one of those football games where it was just a shame that ultimately, somebody had to, you know, win.

There were 21 penalties totaling 221 yards as the Browns went up, 13-0, but couldn't hold it, the Cowboys went up, 17-13, but couldn't hold it, the Browns went up, 20-17, with 1:07 left but couldn't hold it, and Jerry Jones was probably tempted to shut down the Texas-sized jumbotron before the home team managed a merciful field goal 3:32 into overtime.

Then Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur did something I don't think anyone's done all season.

"I compliment the Cowboys," he said.

Again?

"I compliment the Cowboys; they found a way to get at us a little bit and they finished it in overtime so credit to them. I do think our guys fought extremely hard. We didn't make enough plays to win. Otherwise I thought our guys battled for the most part. I told the players sometimes this happens in life. You just get back to work and put all your energy and your focus on beating the Pittsburgh Steelers."

The Steelers can pretty much focus on next year if they don't prevent exactly that, and they'll have to start by preventing rookie running back Trent Richardson from gaining 107 yards, which is his average for the past three games.

"They like to go over the top if they get the opportunity," Clark said, "but mostly they like to matriculate the ball down the field."

Fact is, it's hardly a matter of what anyone likes at this point.

The Steelers weren't expected to like the prospect of having to conjure a fourth-quarter victory at Cleveland on a 30-yard pass from Brian Hoyer to Plaxico Burress, but they certainly would bring it home.

A fish is a fish is a fish.

Steelers - genecollier


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