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News & Notes: Browns embrace playing spoiler role vs. Steelers

The Browns might not have playoffs on the line in Week 18, but there are plenty of other variables at stake against their AFC North rival

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The Browns won't end the 2022 season in the playoffs, but they still have an opportunity to end the year with a bang.

A win Sunday against the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium would do just that. Pittsburgh would be knocked out of the playoffs, and the Browns would have their first season sweep against the Steelers since 1988.

Those are pretty high Week 18 stakes for a team that has had two weeks to digest the disappointment of missing out on the postseason, but as the final practice days of the season wind down, it's clear the Browns aren't taking the game lightly.

"It would be huge for us," G Joel Bitonio said. "They've been a very, very good franchise. At least my whole career, they've been very good. They've done some good things. For us to get a second win against them in Pittsburgh, I think would be a big thing for us. We're treating it like a very important game for us."

Check out photos of players and coaches working to prepare for the teams regular season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have kept their playoff hopes alive by winning five of their last six games, including three straight. Their last two wins have featured game-winning drives from rookie QB Kenny Pickett, who appears to be settling into the starting role after starting his 11th game of the season. He's thrown four touchdowns to just one interception in his last seven starts.

When the Browns first played the Steelers this season in Week 3, Mitchell Trubisky was the QB and the Browns won 29-17. Pickett, drafted 20th overall out of Pitt by the Steelers last season, debuted the next week and threw three interceptions and no touchdowns. He had another three-interception performance in Week 7 but has thrown just two picks since then.

"A very good young player," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "Athletic. Can make all of the throws. Has played well in big moments. They're a little bit different than the last time we played them because he is just a little bit different. A really, really good young player."

Sunday is a big game for Pickett. It's also a crucial one for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers haven't had a season with a losing record since Tomlin became coach in 2007, but they're 8-8 heading into Sunday and will be fighting to keep that streak alive.

QB Deshaun Watson has only just been introduced to the Browns-Steelers rivalry this season, and he already understands how much a win would mean for the team and fanbase.

"​​I know the Browns fans are pulling very, very hard for this win," he said. "They want this one to finish out the year and be able to go into next season with two victories under our belt, especially against Pittsburgh."

With their playoff hopes still alive, the Steelers still have more to play for than the Browns, but the Browns still realize how important it would be to end the season with two wins and head into the offseason with confidence that they've defeated a team that has long had the Browns' number as an AFC North rival.

The Browns have three of the last five games, but before that, Pittsburgh had won 17 of the last 20.

A win Sunday would complete the sweep — and perhaps suggest the Browns are ready to keep their momentum against them.

"We know it's going to be a big challenge, but I think we're up for it," Bitonio said. "We want to go out this year on a winning note and just prove to ourselves that it stinks we're not in the playoffs, and we're not playing for what we want, but we do have some wins under our belt in some important games."

Browns elated at positive Hamlin updates

Players and coaches reacted with joy Thursday upon hearing positive news for Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who woke up Wednesday night for the first time since being sedated at University of Cincinnati Medical Center for two days following Monday night's game where he suffered a cardiac rest on the field after a big hit.

The news that Hamlin had shown improvement broke while offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt was conducting his weekly press conference. Van Pelt appeared to get emotional while he processed the update.

"It's great news," he said. "Great news. I'll leave it at that."

Players were also thrilled to hear the update after they and other players around the league anxiously awaited news on Hamlin's status.

"We're pulling for him very, very strong," Watson said. "For us to be able to go to this week, of course, football, we have a job, but the whole NFL is thinking about him, and we're going to make sure that we're playing for him, praying for him and pulling for him. We want the best for everything to come back as best as possible."

Bitonio believes Thomas 'a lock' for HOF

Not many people will likely disagree with Bitonio's stance on Joe Thomas' Hall of Fame candidacy.

Thomas was announced Wednesday as a finalist for the Class of 2023 on his first year on the ballot, and Bitonio, who played next to Thomas as a left guard for his final four seasons, is confident he'll be enshrined in August.

"In my opinion, I think he's a lock, not even biasedly," Bitonio said. "You just look at the other candidates and all of them are great players, but what he did in his career, what he did for the City of Cleveland, the person he is and all of that combined, I think he is a lock to me to be in the Hall of Fame. It was truly, honestly, a blessing for me to come into this league and be able to play next to him for the first four years."

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