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Steelers 20, Browns 13: Mike Tomlin keeps his doubters quiet for another week

By now, children all over the world have made a list of what they want for Christmas.

Steelers fans, meanwhile, have made a list of what they DON’T want for Christmas.

One thing Steelers fans didn’t want to see under their tree this year is two losses to the Browns in the same season, and the Steelers granted that Christmas wish with a 20-13 win over the Browns Sunday at Heinz Field.

The loss avenged their Week 11 defeat at Cleveland, and prevented the Browns’ first season sweep of the Steelers since 1988. That was the only year since 1971 in which the Steelers have failed to win six games in a season.

The last time the Browns won at Pittsburgh was 2003. That was the Steelers’ last losing season as they went 6-10 and it was the last year that they didn’t have Ben Roethlisberger, who was drafted in 2004.

Essentially, the Steelers haven’t had Roethlisberger this year. Despite that, this has not been a lost season. In a historical context, getting swept by the Browns and losing at home to them are things that respectable Steelers teams just don’t do, and even with all their challenges in 2019 the Steelers were able to meet that criteria behind Devlin Hodges and another door-slamming effort by the defense.

Although the Steelers have gone 35-7-1, counting playoffs, against the Browns since Cleveland re-joined the NFL in 1999, there hasn’t been such a large gap between the fortunes of the two franchises this season. Normally, Steelers wins over Cleveland mean we can keep laughing at the Browns. This year, the Steelers needed to beat them so they could stop worrying about them in the race for an AFC wild-card spot.

Had the Browns won, they’d have tied the Steelers with a 6-6 record and actually moved ahead of them because they would have owned the tiebreaker. Instead, the Steelers (7-5) held on to the final playoff slot with two games and three other playoff contenders separating them from the Browns (5-7).

If the Steelers win their four remaining games, they’re in the playoffs. However, with the Bills (9-3) and Ravens (10-2) remaining on their schedule, that’s a lot to ask.

Like any team, the Steelers can only win one game at a time. If they win at Arizona (3-8-1) next week, they’ll avoid giving their fans something else that they asked not to get when they sat on Santa Claus’s lap: A losing season.

Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season since taking over as Steelers’ coach in 2007, and he’s one win away from another guaranteed .500 campaign. Tomlin has come under a lot of criticism over the last couple of years after a one-and-done in the 2017 playoffs and a late-season collapse in 2018. The baseline response to the Tomlin bashers has been that he’s never had a losing season. That might seem a little lame considering he’s had two 8-8 seasons and a 9-7 season, not good enough for a franchise that measures its success in championships.

What Tomlin has done this year, however, really ought to silence the chorus that’s calling for his job. Ask Cowboys coach Jason Garrett (4-12 without Tony Romo in 2015) and former Colts coach Jim Caldwell (2-14 without Peyton Manning in 2011)  how easy it is to win seven games without your franchise quarterback.

On top of that, the Steelers have won four games without James Conner, their top running back, and they’ve won the last two without JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was their top receiver this season before getting knocked out of the game at Cleveland in Week 11.

Tomlin is a Coach of the Year candidate, although his case will take a big hit if the Steelers lose to the lowly Cardinals next week.

Losses to bad teams have dogged Tomlin throughout his career, and that’s something the anti-Tomlin crowd likes to point to. That hasn’t really been a worry this year because considering the Steelers’ quarterback situation no loss would really be shocking. Although the Steelers were underdogs in that game, the Browns are the worst team they’ve lost to this season.

If the Steelers can keep it that way next week, maybe a few more people will appreciate the job Tomlin has done in 2019.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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