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By ELI KABERON
(AP) — Ben Roethlisberger played his best game of the season last week, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are back in the playoff hunt after a slow start.
Now Roethlisberger will look to build off that performance Sunday when the Steelers travel to face their AFC North rival Cleveland Browns, whom he has dominated throughout his career.
Last Sunday, Roethlisberger threw for 367 yards and four touchdowns without an interception as the Steelers (4-6) defeated the Lions 37-27. The win was the team’s fourth in six games after starting 0-4. For his performance, Roethlisberger was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
“We’ve got to keep this thing going,” said Pittsburgh wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who caught the last of Roethlisberger’s four touchdowns, a 20-yard strike in the fourth quarter. “Our margin for error is nonexistent right now. We feel good about this team and we’re going to keep grinding.”
Currently tied with the Browns (4-6) in both the division race and the wild-card standings, the Steelers need their quarterback to deliver again. With that the case, there is no team Roethlisberger would rather face than Cleveland. The Steelers are 15-1 all-time against their longtime rivals when Roethlisberger is under center, with the quarterback completing 62.5 percent of his passes. Roethlisberger hasn’t thrown an interception at FirstEnergy Stadium since 2006.
The Browns will try to counter Roethlisberger with one of the NFL’s top defenses. Opponents average just 4.45 yards per play against Cleveland, the lowest in the league, and the cornerback tandem of Joe Haden and Buster Skrine lead a secondary that is among the league’s best at taking away deep passes.
For the season, the Browns have allowed just 25 passes of 20 yards or longer, fourth-fewest in the NFL. On the other side, Roethlisberger’s strong arm and ability to improvise have helped the Steelers rank third in the league with 46 completions of at least 20 yards.
On Sunday, something has to give.
“We have an extreme amount of potential,” said Browns linebacker Paul Kruger. “For us, it’s just going to be about preparing and doing what we need to do to beat Pittsburgh. I think the coaches do a great job of keeping us focused on what we’re doing.”
The matchup against the Steelers will the Browns’ third straight within the AFC North. Last Sunday, Cleveland fell to the division-leading Bengals 41-20 one week after it beat the Ravens.
“It was an important opportunity for us, and we didn’t play the way we were capable of playing and weren’t able to get it done at the end of the day,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said of the loss. “I think that it’s important that we learn from this, and when we have an opportunity again, which we will in the future, this experience is something that guys will be able to draw from and that’ll help us.”
Against Pittsburgh, Jason Campbell will be making his fourth consecutive start for the Browns at quarterback, and he should be helped by the friendly confines of the home field. In his two starts on the road this season – both losses – Campbell has thrown as many interceptions (3) as touchdowns, and has a passer rating of 68.3. In his lone home start, the 24-18 win versus Baltimore on Nov. 3, Campbell threw three touchdowns without an interception and finished with a rating of 116.6.
“The key to the quarterback is how guys bounce back when they’re having some adversity or don’t play as well as they would’ve liked,” Chudzinski said. “Generally, teams are better at home (with) the energy, the crowd. I think the fans have been awesome, and our team feeds off that energy. You have to be able to win in both places, whether it’s on the road or at home and we need to do a better job on the road.”
Both teams are in the thick of the wild-card chase since nine AFC teams enter play this weekend with either four or five wins, and the New York Jets hold the second and final wild-card spot at 5-5.
“This is a tight race,” Steelers cornerback Will Allen said. “It’s a three-way tie for second in our division. Hopefully we can get another win, get three in a row. It’s a tough task.
“Cleveland is a good team. They always play us hard.”
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