The Steelers already have clinched a playoff berth, but for them, the road to the Super Bowl goes through ... Cleveland?
Yes, Cleveland, which is again on the outside watching others fight or prepare for their playoff berths for the seventh consecutive season. Cleveland, which finished last in the division six of the past seven seasons. Cleveland, on the verge of a possible coaching change for the fourth time in the past seven years.
It's that same Cleveland, which knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs last season with a stunning 13-6 upset victory at home.
"We went up there and laid an egg," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel recalls of that bitterly cold, windy December Thursday night in Cleveland. "We're not trying to do that again."
The stakes are more vital this time.
The difference between winning and losing in Cleveland for the Steelers may be the difference between having a clear path to the AFC championship game and having little chance of coming near it.
The game Sunday in Cleveland means everything. To put it in simple terms, here is the difference for the Steelers between beating the Browns and earning the No. 2 seed in the conference and losing and having to go on the road as a wild-card playoff team:
A win -- The Steelers have off Jan. 8/9 and open play at home Jan. 15/16 for the right to advance to the AFC championship game, which also could be at home if New England loses.
A loss -- The Steelers would make plans for a road trip Jan. 8/9 probably at Kansas City, for the right to play on the road again Jan. 15/16 at New England, for the right to advance to the AFC championship game on the road.
It's not just the extra week's rest they would earn with the bye, but the free pass into the next round and a guaranteed home game.
"It's huge for us," said Casey Hampton. "We definitely need it. If you get a bye, it gets you closer to the Super Bowl. You only have to win two games instead of three. Anything can happen in the playoffs so you want to play as least games as possible trying to get there."
The week's rest and extra time to heal -- and to avoid further injury by playing an extra playoff game -- also are important.
"It's big, it's big," Keisel said. "Some time off, that's what we're fighting for, to get that bye. We have one more game to do it and the ball's in our hands."
There has been no word yet on whether Troy Polamalu, who has missed the past two games with an injury around his Achilles tendon, will play in Cleveland; defensive captain James Farrior said Monday "It doesn't look good, but you never know." If he does not and the Steelers win, Polamalu will have had a month off before he will have played.
"We have a lot of key guys banged up," said Bryant McFadden, himself one of them with a lingering issue with a hamstring. "That gives us an extra week of just practicing and you don't have to worry about going into a four-quarter ballgame on that Sunday. And you get a chance to get guys feeling a lot better for next week."
The Steelers, of course, have gone the wild-card route successfully. In 2005, they became the first team to win three playoff games on the road and then win a Super Bowl. That the New York Giants turned the same trick two years later does not make that route in vogue.
"Not too many teams get a chance to go the way we did," said McFadden, also part of that 2005 Super Bowl team. "We needed our last four games to win just to get in. We used that as a rhythm and continued to play good football and get to that Super Bowl -- '08 was a different route."
The Steelers had the No. 2 seed in '08 and played two games to reach the Super Bowl at home after top-seed Tennessee was upset.
If the Steelers have to go the wild-card route this time, not only would it be a psychological and physical blow to them, but they won't be entering the playoffs on a roll as they did in '05. They will go having lost two of their final three, including their last one to Cleveland.
"We want to clinch the second seed and our division," LaMarr Woodley said. "We have to take care of Cleveland. Last year, when we played Cleveland down there, they took care of business on us. We have to make sure that doesn't happen this year."
The Steelers' loss in Cleveland last December was the coup de grace to their playoff chances, their fifth consecutive loss, and a defeat to a two-win team. The Steelers never had a lead in that 13-6 debacle and were outgained on the ground, in the air and in the return department. The Browns sacked Ben Roethlisberger eight times.
There was nothing redeemable about that game for the Steelers last season, but maybe it will have some effect on this one.
"I don't think it'll play into this game coming up we have next week with them," linebacker James Farrior said. "We know they'll come up with their best. We know they're going to try to knock us out or knock us down. That's what a division rivalry is all about and they're definitely a rivalry. So, we're going to go in there with the same mind-set they are."
That rivalry? The Steelers had won eight in a row in Cleveland and 12 in a row overall against the Browns before that upset loss. Their 28-10 victory Oct. 17 in Heinz Field gave the Steelers 13 wins in their past 14 games against the Browns and 20 in the past 23 games against them.