This isn't exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers are trained for.
Instead of amassing momentum for a late-season push toward yet another Super Bowl appearance -- they've won six overall, and two in this century -- the Steelers are instead heading home to Heinz Field this weekend to face the Cleveland Browns with nothing to play for beyond pride.
A 13-10 home loss to Cincinnati -- its third straight -- ended hopes of both a division title and a postseason berth last week for Pittsburgh, leaving Week 17 as a glorified walk-through for coaches and players accustomed to far more. In fact, it's just the second time in six seasons under Mike Tomlin that the end of the regular-season schedule will mean the end of the line.
The untimely three-game skid was preceded by a 20-14 loss in Cleveland, meaning the Browns are in position to sweep the season series between the teams for the first time in 24 years.
It's a circumstance that doesn't thrill Tomlin.
"This is an opportunity to play and play to win, to get this sour taste out of our mouth," he said. "I am not going to approach it with (any other) mentality."
An interception thrown by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led to Cincinnati's decisive points last Sunday, just a week after another INT provided field position for Dallas to clinch an overtime victory.
Not surprisingly then, at the end of a season in which the Steelers have lost a majority of their close games, the passer is taking some verbal hits in addition to physical ones.
"A lot of it just has to do with me not playing well enough down the stretch," Roethlisberger said. "Fourth-quarter drives or last-minute throws, I'm just not making it happen, so my best answer would be that I just didn't play well enough."
He's completed 63.1 percent of his attempts across 12 starts and has 23 touchdowns compared to only eight interceptions, but exactly half of the picks -- and just six of the TDs -- have come in the three games he's played since sitting out three weeks with rib and shoulder maladies.
"We can talk about (injuries) in the offseason maybe, but I feel good enough to play," he said.
Not on the "I feel good enough" list for this week is tight end Heath Miller, who'll miss this weekend and probably more down the road after tearing both the ACL and MCL in his right knee against the Bengals.
Miller has long been one of Roethlisberger's primary targets, and both the 19 red-zone throws in his direction and the eight scoring catches he's made are among the best in the league at his position.
Cleveland, meanwhile, dropped a 22-point decision at Denver last week to ensure its 11th season of double-digit losses since the franchise was reinvented in 1999 after the initial version moved to Baltimore. It's made the playoffs just once -- in 2007, under Romeo Crennel -- since the transition.
Still, a defeat of the Steelers this week would mark a two-win improvement over the 4-12 finish in coach Pat Shurmur's initial season on the job. Whether that would be enough to save him, however, is up for debate in a revamped front office that's issued a mandate for turnaround.
Shurmur's two years at the helm have followed a two-year run by Eric Mangini, which came after four years under Crennel, four under Butch Davis and two under Chris Palmer.
No Cleveland coach has lasted five years since Bill Belichick went 36-44 from 1991-95.
"Every year you have a constant rebuilding process, not a good recipe for success football," punt returner Josh Cribbs said.
More urgent for the time being is the availability of a healthy quarterback after starter Brandon Weeden and second-stringer Colt McCoy were injured against the Broncos.
No. 3 man Thad Lewis, who was called up from the practice squad and has never taken an NFL snap, worked with the first team in practice this week and would go if the top two cannot. Free agent Josh Johnson, who threw 177 passes in three seasons with Tampa Bay, was signed to add emergency depth.
Also on the mend is rookie running back Trent Richardson, who injured his left ankle against Denver and remains in doubt along with the quarterbacks. He ran for 85 yards and a TD in the Browns' defeat of the Steelers last month, in which Pittsburgh turned the ball over eight times and gained only 242 total yards.
"The injuries to Brandon and Trent are not as severe as you might have thought," Shurmur said. "We'll see how they come back. If they are healthy and can go, then of course they'll play. If they can't, I have no problem ruling them out."
The Steelers hold a narrow 62-57 edge in the all-time series, but they've been dominant to the tune of 21 wins in the last 24 games. Tomlin is 9-2 against the Browns, while Shurmur is 1-2 against Pittsburgh.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Since the initial game between the teams was largely defined by Pittsburgh's destruction via its own hand, it makes sense for coordinator Todd Haley and the offensive brain trust to keep it simple in the cold-weather rematch.
That could mean dual roles for the bevy of Steelers backs who are both capable runners and versatile enough to be weapons on short, high-percentage passes. The Browns have been susceptible to both while allowing 120.5 rush yards and 253.5 pass yards per game.
In the grand scheme of things, it'd seem like the Browns have more to play for ��� not the least of which would be a rare season sweep of a hated rival and a chance to save a popular coach. But without clarity under center and facing a host foe whose fan base would be particularly perturbed with a below-.500 finish, it seems unlikely Cleveland will repeat its November feat.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Steelers 24, Browns 10