Push comes to shove at Heinz Field: Browns, Steelers must settle their Week 1 business

Push comes to shove at Heinz Field: Browns, Steelers must settle their Week 1 business

I wanna push you around — Well I will, well I will
I wanna push you down — Well I will, well I will
I wanna take you for granted, I wanna take you for granted
Yeah, well I will

Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas and producer Matt Serletic wrote about an abusive relationship between a man and woman when they penned Push, although they could have been talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. For the last few decades, NFL teams [and even former owner Art Modell] lined up to push the Browns around and take them for granted. The Steelers were the Harvey Weinstein in that dynamic but Cleveland fights back now, these days.

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Head coach Hue Jackson fashioned a #MeToo movement of sorts. This season’s first encounter between the two former AFC Central stalwarts ended in the ultimate push, a tie. Cleveland remains in the AFC North cellar with a 2-4-1SU record. Pittsburgh still tops the division with a 3-2-1SU mark. Cincinnati and Modell’s remade Browns, the Baltimore Ravens wedge between at 4-3 SU. The four teams are reviving the AFC Central vibe from the 70s and 80s. Jackson’s group aren’t on the same level as the other three yet but they’re coming up hard. Opponents take them for granted at their peril.

Big Ben still likes to push defenders around.

The line doesn’t reflect that. Vegas and the online Brits have the Steelers giving eight points at Heinz Field despite the 21-21 Smoky Mountain standoff in Week 1. The total is 49. The first meeting squeaked the OVER by a point. Their other three divisional matchups combined all went Under. Further evidence that AFC Central ghosts are haunting the North.

The main reason for the high line and total is Cleveland’s injury situation. The receiving corps has been riddled. Three players are on injured reserve. Third wideout Rashard Higgins is doubtful with a bum knee. DeMari Scott is questionable with a shoulder injury. Starting center JC Tretter is questionable, too, with an ankle issue. Fewer targets and a gimpy snapper won’t help rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield move the ball.

On the defensive side, starting middle linebacker Joe Schobert is out with a hamstring. The secondary is as short-staffed as the receivers. Starting cornerback EJ Gaines isn’t expected to clear concussion protocol. Free safety DeMarious Randall is questionable despite groin and ankle problems. DB Terrance Mitchell is on IR, leaving the Browns with just TJ Carrie on the right corner. Guess where Ben Roethlisberger will be looking to pass on Pittsburgh’s early drives?

Steelers right guard Marcus Gilbert is questionable with a knee injury. Otherwise, Mike Tomlin’s first and second units are ready to go.

Coming off a bye week, the Browns are 0-4-1 AGAINST THE POINT SPREAD in their last five. The Steelers stand 0-5 ATS in the same situation, so the push theme continues. The UNDER is 5-1 in games following a SU Cleveland loss. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh knows how to keep their momentum rolling, hitting the OVER in the last five games following a performance that produced at least 350 total yards.

Head-to-head, the OVER is running 11-5-1 at Heinz Field but Cleveland is 3-0-1 ATS in their last four meetings overall. Injuries must be a concern but both the line and total seem high. Which is the better bet? If Cleveland is going to struggle to pass the ball, I’m inclined to go with the UNDER.

Free Pick: CLE at PIT: Under [49]
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.


What does the early win line tell us about the 2018 NFL season?

What does the early win line tell us about the 2018 NFL season?

Vegas released its early line on total wins for all National Football League teams earlier in the week. It makes for interesting reading. Here’s a look at the numbers sorted by division.

NFL total wins for 2018


You can draw some broad conclusions by looking at the overall numbers.

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The bookies love the NFC. Especially the NFC North and South.

Overall, the early line on total wins [not ATS] favors the blue half of the league 133 wins to 125. Given every team plays a quarter of its games against opponents from the other conference, basic math says sports books think the NFC will go 36-28 against the AFC.

Given each division plays 64 games [ four teams times 16 games], 32 is the .500 win total for divisions. The NFC has three divisions above that mark and one right on it. The AFC North and East are the two teams below it.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how early predictions have each division shaking out.

AFC East

New England’s line is the highest in the entire NFL. They’re tabbed to win 11. That’s because the handicappers expect them to beat up on a weak division. Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets are all pegged to lose at least ten.

AFC North

Pittsburgh is the favorite, as usual. Baltimore and Cincinnati will battle to finish second but likely cancel each other out in the wildcard race. That’s if you buy into the 5.5 win line for the Browns.

Cleveland went 0-16 in 2017. They had a good draft but will it bump them up to 5-11? The club hasn’t won five games in the last three seasons combined. The Ravens or the Bengals could be a good pick for the over.

On the other hand, if you think the Browns are going to rise from the ashes, you should be looking at the under for one or two of their division rivals.

AFC South

This has long been the most competitive foursome in the AFC and the experts are respecting that again. What they don’t respect is Andrew Luck’s chances to be his former self after coming back from a shoulder injury. Quarterbacks do have to throw the ball, after all. That isn’t easy with a bad wing. Doctors will tell you that recovering strength after shoulder surgery is a time-consuming process. The Colts are definitely the bet on which the South hinges.

AFC West

The strongest division in the conference. Early odds have the Chargers settling into their temporary LA digs at the StubHub Center, home of MLS side LA Galaxy. That suggests there are doubts Andy Reid can sustain the momentum in Kansas City and that Jon Gruden will have a major impact in his return to coaching after more than a decade away.

Nate Gerry feels good about winning Super Bowl LII with the Philadelphia Eagles.

NFC East

Vegas is sold on the Super Bowl champion Eagles. Philadelphia is second only to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the betting line, despite their win in February. The Cowboys at 8.5 is an interesting pick. It expresses doubt about Jerry Jones’ project. There’s reason to worry. Will Allen Hurns be an upgrade on Dez Bryant? Can Geoff Swaims and Rico Gathers step up following Jason Witten’s move to the Monday Night Football booth?

There’s not much love for Washington or New York. I Kill Giants is probably a staple in the DVD collection for children of division rivals.

NFC North

The Black and Blue Division is set to flex its muscle in 2018. Minnesota and Green Bay are the only division rivals both rated as ten-game winners. With Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers behind center respectively, why not? Matthew Stafford and Detroit are the dark horses again, while the Bears continue to hibernate.

NFC South

This is an even tighter race than the North. Three teams, New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina, are all expected to win at least nine. There’s no love for Jameis Winston and the Bucs, though. Tampa just hasn’t done much to improve a 5-11 team.

NFC West

It’s a similar story to the South in the Pacific time zone. There’s affection for Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo in LA and San Fran respectively. There’s even some fondness for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks? Sam Bradford and the Cardinals come in; the room goes quiet. When you consider how Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer experienced a renaissance in the desert, Bradford looks like something of a sleeper pick for Arizona. On the other hand, you weren’t as likely to wake up to find Warner and Palmer on the DL.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

Is the Cleveland Browns draft class new hope or another false dawn?

Is the Cleveland Browns draft class new hope or another false dawn?

What is the most wonderful thing about the offseason? No matter what happened last year, you can let your imagination off the leash.

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Life is cruel, however. The first things to go after the initial meaningful game are hopes and dreams.

Occasionally, though, the unexpected happens. Everything falls into place. Hope is fulfilled, dreams realized, and your club goes all the way. In 2017, the Houston Astros won the World Series. Three months later, the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl.

In the latter case, a few thousand memes had to be revised to fit a new team.

If I were Eagles owner, Jeffrey Lurie, the first person I’d call would be Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam. The Browns were winless in 2017. They’ve only won four games in the last three seasons and had just two winning seasons since their reincarnation in 1999.

Hi Jimmy? It’s Jeff. Listen I’ve got all these old Super Bowl memes lying around that we can’t use anymore…

Of course, some aren’t transferrable.

Dad, what’s a Super Bowl ring? How should I know, son? We’re brown.

That doesn’t make sense. And can a color see its shadow?

On the other hand, Ned Stark is universal. You can put Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Minnesota, whoever, in there and it works. It could be leased out to baseball, basketball, and soccer trolls, too. Haslam would see a return on his investment. The Back to the Future meme offers double value. After all, Marty McFly’s mentor is Doc Brown. It’s a natural fit.

Getting good value might be a problem for Lurie, however. The Browns already have some existing inventory.

Right now, there is optimism in the Dawg Pound. Cleveland is a .500 team again at least until Week 1. There may be reason to hold out hope. The Browns had a strong draft, landing Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward in the first round, as well as Georgia running back Nick Chubb in the second. The team also acquired quarterback Tyrod Taylor from Buffalo, receiver Jarvis Landry from the Dolphins, and right tackle Chris Hubbard from Pittsburgh. Left tackle Joe Thomas retired but Vegas sport books have the Browns as early favorites in two games, Week 3 v the New York Jets and Week 15 when the Cincinnati Bengals come to town.

It’s encouraging to think the Browns might be competitive in 2018 but let’s not jump the gun. They’ve made exciting personnel moves in the past. Tim Couch never panned out. Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III. If anything, Baker Mayfield might deserve our sympathy. The Oklahoma quarterback has a different skill set than Griffin and more self-control than Manziel but is another unique personality. The team has already demonstrated it can’t deal with characters, preferring to cookie-cutter everyone in the squad.

Nor does the executive show patience or long-term thinking. Its five first-round picks in the 2017/18 NFL Drafts were courtesy former Executive VP of Football Operations Sashi Brown’s draft policy. Building a club through the draft is a multi-season endeavour. It didn’t happen quickly enough for owner Jimmy Haslam. He fired Brown in December to resolve a power struggle between the executive and head coach Hue Jackson.

Cleveland Browns EVP of Football Operations Sashi Brown and head coach Hue Jackson.

Brown wasn’t perfect as a GM. He took a gamble on Griffin’s injury history and lost. He traded away a second-rounder to Philadelphia that turned out to be Carson Wentz. As if the quarterback was guaranteed to enjoy the same success in Cleveland as he has in Philly.

Brown clashed with Jackson because his focus was on collecting draft picks rather than paying too much to free agents or in trades with other teams. The team is now benefitting from that policy and likely will for the next few seasons.

Like Jackson, Haslam is impatient. When he hired both Jackson and Brown in January 2016, it was his fourth franchise reboot in five years as owner. It’s easy to imagine the team struggling early, Jackson turning to Mayfield too soon in the young quarterback’s tutelage, the team struggling further, and Haslam initiating the search for a new coach before season’s end. It’s more fun to dream, however.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.