The Cleveland Browns are officially in playoff mode.
They're not officially in the playoffs yet, but they're about as close as they can get. The stakes on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium are simple: Defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers, and they're in. It's the kind of stage the Browns have been playing for all season, but they're getting it early in Week 17.
The opponent couldn't be much tougher. Pittsburgh has already locked its playoff spot behind a roster that features five Pro Bowlers and the No. 2 defense, and they handed the Browns one of their toughest losses of the season in Week 6 with a 38-7 rout.
But now the scenery is much different for Cleveland this time around. The playoffs are in sight.
"The mentality here is we are in our playoffs just one week early," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "It's win or go home. That is the mentality for our guys. We have the talent and we have the scheme. We just have to go out there, execute it and do our jobs. We know when we have success and when we have had success this year that has been the case."
The scenery on the offense is much different, too.
Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb wasn't available for the Browns when they traveled to Heinz Field, but his resurgence — as well as the recently refined play from Mayfield — has turned the Browns into a team that should stack up much better against the Steelers in the 2020 rematch.
With Chubb, the Browns are back near the top of the NFL's rushing leaderboard. They currently own the fourth-best rushing attack in the league, and Chubb is still seventh in the league with 959 rushing yards despite missing four games.
With Mayfield, the Browns have recently developed one of the hottest passing games in the league. He's thrown nine touchdowns and an interception in the last eight games and has built a quarterback rating over 100 in three of the last five games. Mayfield has arguably played some of the best football of his career in December, and he's hoping to prove he can bring it against the Browns' AFC North rival after throwing for only 119 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in their last meeting.
"We're a much different team just based on scheme and the things that we have learned about ourselves as the season has gone on," he said. "You want to continue to improve, and we have done that gradually as the season has gone on."
Mayfield is also eager to avenge his previous performance against the New York Jets. That game, which ended with a 23-16 loss, featured three fumbles from Mayfield and the end of a four-game touchdown streak. He pinned the blame on himself for the loss and vowed to get better at protecting the football, a skill he's done well for most of 2020 — he currently has just eight interceptions on the season, which is well below his previous low of 14 as a rookie in 2018.
But Mayfield should be back to playing with his usual offensive playmakers this week. He was without his top four wide receivers in Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge last Sunday due to all four players being placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list as high-risk, close contacts. They're all set to return to practice Thursday and be available Sunday if they continue to test negative.
"I think they are just as eager to get back in the building as I am to have them back in the building," Mayfield said.
The offense undoubtedly will be in better shape to face Pittsburgh with Chubb in the lineup, too. His bulldozing abilities and breakaway speed were missed in Week 6, but since he returned in Week 10, the Browns have cleared 100 rushing yards and have gotten at least one touchdown from Chubb in six of the last seven games.
Cleveland paired Chubb and running back Kareem Hunt for games just like this. The Steelers have a defense that ranks eighth in the NFL against the run, but they haven't seen a running back duo as talented as Chubb and Hunt. The two backs have worn down defenses late in games several times this season.
If they're doing it again Sunday, that means the Browns could be a few minutes away from history — their first playoff berth since 2002.
"We have to establish the run game," Mayfield said. "It helps to have both of those guys rotating in and having fresh legs. It wears on those defenses to be able to rotate those guys in and seem like they are in the first half still."
All the pieces should be in place for Cleveland to give Pittsburgh its best battle Sunday. That's how any team wants to approach the postseason, and even though the NFL playoffs don't start for another week, the Browns are under the mindset that their playoffs have started now.
"We're not looking for approval," Mayfield said. "We're looking to win games and take care of business."
Check out the best photos from the Browns game against the Jets yesterday by the Browns photo team