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Browns-Steelers wild rematch will be about more than acrimony

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Browns fan swings Steelers helmet at Rudolph pinata (0:28)

A Browns fan takes a Steelers helmet and attempts to hit a Mason Rudolph pinata. (0:28)

CLEVELAND -- Midway through Cleveland's rout of the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, the First Energy Stadium video board flashed a highlight of Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph being intercepted in Cincinnati. That highlight led to a huge ovation among Browns fans, with "Pittsburgh sucks" and "Rudolph sucks" chants reverberating throughout the stadium.

Cleveland's players weren't yet looking ahead to their rematch against the Steelers, as the Browns delivered one of their crispest performances of the season in 41-24 victory over the Dolphins.

Browns fans, however, were another story. Before the game, they were even playing Rudolph piƱata in the tailgate lots, as blindfolded fans attempted to bash the Steelers quarterback dummy with a Pittsburgh helmet.

On the heels of one of the ugliest scenes in recent NFL history, the rematch may have lost a little bit of sizzle with Pittsburgh benching Rudolph before rallying to a win over the Bengals.

But in a showdown holding massive AFC wild-card implications between two rivals that historically detest each other, Browns-Steelers II should be a wild scene come Sunday at Heinz Field.

"Playoff atmosphere," said Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield when asked what to expect. "We'll see what happens."

Ironically, though, both players at the heart of the acrimony on Nov. 14 might not be on the field.

Predictably, coming off a tumultuous week, Rudolph struggled in Cincinnati and was benched by Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin after two ineffective quarters. Devlin Hodges came in and passed for 118 yards. Seventy-nine of those came on a spectacular catch-and-run touchdown featuring a stiff-arm by wide receiver James Washington. Then again, Hodges didn't turn the ball over, either.

Tomlin was coy about who will start against the Browns, saying, “We'll see what next week holds." Yet as Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens and the majority of his players downplayed Pittsburgh's QB situation, Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson couldn't resist giving his opinion.

"I hope he plays. I hope he plays," Richardson said when asked if he'd be disappointed if Rudolph didn't play.

Why?

"Did you see him last game?" he replied, referencing Rudolph's four interceptions against the Browns.

While Rudolph's status remains up in the air, Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett most definitely won't be on the field.

The NFL last week upheld his indefinite suspension, which includes the rest of this season, for clubbing Rudolph in the head with the QB's own helmet.

That alone would have created a toxic setting for teams playing again just 17 days later. Then, during his appeal, Garrett accused Rudolph of inciting him with a racial slur, which only heightened the bad blood.

After Sunday's game, Rudolph called the charge "totally untrue" and said he "couldn't believe that [Garrett] would go that route." Tomlin and the Steelers have stood by Rudolph as well.

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Ryan: Mayfield is underrated

Earlier in the season Rex Ryan called Baker Mayfield overrated. After Cleveland's three-game winning streak, Rex says he's underrated and claims the Browns will make the playoffs.

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Browns owner Dee Haslam wore a cap with Garrett's number 95 in a show of support. The Browns are backing their guy, too.

All of which leads to Sunday in a game both teams desperately need to keep their playoff hopes alive.

According to ESPN's Football Power Index, Pittsburgh’s and Cleveland's playoffs odds are almost identical, at 27.6% and 25.2%, respectively. Whoever wins Sunday will have its playoff odds go up dramatically, while the losers’ odds will be severely dimmed.

That in and of itself would be a massive storyline. But with these teams, it won't be the only one. Given the ill will, it won't be the defining one going in, either.