PITTSBURGH – A game the Pittsburgh Steelers were hoping would mean nothing now means everything, and they know it.
The Steelers (11-4) wanted to have the AFC North and a playoff bye wrapped up by now. They don't, and that means Sunday's game at Cleveland has the potential to significantly damage their chances of winning the Super Bowl even before the playoffs begin.
The neighboring cites have been rivals for 60 years but, since the NFL merger in 1970, the Steelers haven't traveled to Cleveland during the final week of the regular season for a game that meant so much to them.
Win, and the Steelers will take the division, earn a playoff bye and own home-field advantage for at least the second round of the playoffs. Lose to the Browns (5-10) in a major upset and the Steelers likely will be relegated to being seeded sixth in the AFC, with no chance for a home game and no time off before they open the wild-card playoffs next week.
"You definitely don't want to play next week, because anything can happen in the NFL, anybody can beat anybody," nose tackle Casey Hampton said Wednesday.
Even if they survive that game, they'd have to win at New England (13-2) the following week just to reach the AFC championship game.
While the Steelers (2005 season) and Giants (2007) both won the Super Bowl as sixth-seeded teams that went on the road for three consecutive weeks of conference playoffs, no one else did it in the Super Bowl's first 44 seasons. Few came close.
With key players such as Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith slowed or sidelined by injuries, and lacking the late-season momentum they seized by winning their final four games in 2005, the Steelers understand that taking such a circuitous path might prove too difficult this season.
The Steelers and Ravens (11-4) are tied for the AFC North lead, but Pittsburgh owns the tiebreaker based on a better division record. All that vanishes if the Steelers lose in Cleveland and the Ravens beat the Bengals (4-11), a scenario that gives Baltimore the division title.
"That's more motivation than anything else," Hampton said. "You want to have a week off, you don't want to play in anybody else's home stadium for the first round. You get a lot more rest (with a bye), especially us being an older team."
Normally, the Steelers have little trouble beating the Browns; they've won 13 of the past 14 in what has been a rivalry in name only since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999.
But everybody in the Steelers locker room knows about the lone defeat, 13-6 last season to a one-win Cleveland team. That loss finished off a five-game Steelers losing streak and eventually kept them out of the playoffs.
That's why the Steelers' more experienced players are making sure the rookies understand what can happen when a team lets down in a game it figures to win easily.
"The players, the coaches, everybody's mentioned it," center Maurkice Pouncey said. "They know what happened last year and we're trying not to let that happen again. They're saying we can't have that again. We know what we want, and it's right in front of us to get."
While coach Mike Tomlin is 6-1 against the Browns, he considers them to be a rival because the cities are so close. Even if they're often far apart in the standings; the Steelers are in the playoffs for the fifth time in seven seasons, while the Browns were last in the AFC North six of the previous seven seasons.
"Any time in the National Football League you're getting on a bus to go play a game, mean, that's a pretty heated rivalry," Tomlin said. "Not many bus trips in the National Football League. Just from a proximity's standpoint, it's unique."
The Browns frustrated the Steelers last season by holding them to 75 yards in the first half and sacking Ben Roethlisberger eight times. Roethlisberger came back this season to throw three touchdown passes in his season's debut, a 28-10 win over Cleveland on Oct. 17 that followed his four-game suspension.
"The motivation's the AFC North and trying to get this win and get a bye," Roethlisberger said. "We've got a lot of motivation. Yeah, last year was a bad loss up there so we've got a lot of fighting to do, and we know that."