In Browns, a reinvigorated rival for Steelers
Mediocrity is restoring meaning to the Steelers-Browns rivalry.
Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh once was such a unique rivalry that the NFL gave it a night of its own. During much of the 1960s, the neighboring franchises played Saturday night special games in Cleveland.
But there has been little special about Browns-Steelers since the original Cleveland franchise defected to Baltimore after the 1995 season. The Browns have had only two winning seasons since they returned to the NFL in 1999, and they've won only 27 games in the past six seasons.
The Steelers are 24-5 against Generation II of the Browns, 11-3 in Cleveland.
But Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, desperation will bring about the second truly meaningful Browns-Steelers game at this stage of a season in 14 years. On Nov. 11, 2007, the Steelers (6-2) beat the Browns (5-3), 31-28, and went on to win the division with a 10-5-1 record to Cleveland's 9-7.
“It's certainly big for us,” tight end Heath Miller said. “We've put ourselves in a hole here and every game is important, and this is the next game.”
In most seasons, it wouldn't be. But with eight teams within one game of each other in the AFC playoff race, the Steelers could emerge as the front-runners for the second wild-card spot if they beat Cleveland and then Baltimore (4-6) on Thanksgiving night.
“We're focused on the first one,” Miller said. “We know the situation.”
Normally, the Browns are more of a nuisance to the Steelers than anything else at this time of the season. But these Browns possess one of the NFL's best defenses, and a typical late-November Cleveland day — with whipping winds and predicted single-digit wind-chill factors — could limit the Steelers' fast-improving passing game.
“It's always a bitter rivalry type of thing. It's always fun. It's always cold. It's always something we look forward to,” Steelers receiver Antonio Brown said.
But he paused, then said, “Yeah, the ball can sail with the wind coming off (Lake Erie).”
The Steelers can only hope their playoff chances don't blow away with it.
“We have a great mudder, so to speak, in Ben (Roethlisberger) that likes to play and executes well in bad weather, which you are really happy to have,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.
The Steelers are 16-2 against Cleveland from Nov. 1 on, and Roethlisberger is 15-1 as a starter against them.
But here's one worry for the Steelers: AFC North teams are 7-0 at home against divisional opponents this season. The Browns, Bengals and Ravens all are 2-0.
“It's always been a pivotal game because it's an AFC North opponent, and every year I've been here it's always been about the playoffs,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders. “We always play Cleveland down the stretch.”
And almost always beat them. That's one Cleveland-Pittsburgh tradition the Steelers badly need to uphold.