Rival Browns aim to dampen Steelers' spirits
BEREA, Ohio — A month after LeBron James returned to Quicken Loans Arena on Dec. 2, this sometimes crestfallen sports town has seemingly shifted its allegiance back to the Cleveland Browns.
Clearly, it took a while for most everyone here to get over "The Decision" - James' controversial, if not botched, exit from Northeast Ohio. Amid the theatrics of James' lavish South Beach welcoming, Cavaliers fans were mostly numb and angry.
Still, most Cavs fans are unforgiving. Most die-hard Browns supporters have moved on.
"This town is football first, regardless," Browns linebacker David Bowens said. "LeBron was one of those home-grown products the city adopted as its baby.
"Since (James) left, the focus has come back to our team. Our hard-working style of play is reflective of a hard-working city that hungers for a winner. This town embraces the identity of this team."
For Browns center Alex Mack, Cleveland will embrace the Browns the way Pittsburgh does the Steelers when one of the NFL's most storied rivalries becomes relevant again — or, at least competitive.
"We need to win more games for that to happen," Mack said. "We need to pack that stadium before any of that can be true."
So far, the Browns are exactly where they were a year ago.
They had their moments — albeit largely few and far between. There were startling upsets of defending world champion New Orleans and New England. But uninspired efforts against two 4-11 teams, Buffalo and Cincinnati, left them at 5-10 and cellar-dwellers in the AFC North.
With yet another long, frustrating season finishing today at Browns Stadium, both the city and Browns are desperate to salvage some semblance of dignity with a rare victory over the rival Steelers, who can clinch a first-round bye with a win or a Baltimore loss.
At a speaking engagement earlier this week, rookie cornerback Joe Haden discovered that most Cleveland fans aren't interested in their battles against the Bengals and Ravens. It's all about the Steelers.
"It's all I talked about. It's all they talked about," Haden said. "I didn't realize how passionate people are about this rivalry."
For Browns veteran kicker Phil Dawson, the rivalry is as relevant and meaningful as it was during its heyday. But he admits the Steelers' 21-4 edge since 1999 has dampened the enthusiasm of a once-fiery rivalry.
"It means something just to beat the Steelers, and it's something we haven't done a lot of lately," Dawson said. "(Pittsburgh) has been very successful against us, but we have a chance to change that (today). It's really that simple.
"It doesn't matter what anyone thinks about this rivalry. It's still a special game to me, and it's a special game to the city of Cleveland. I want to beat Pittsburgh — that's my focus."
Dawson spent time in the film room earlier this week watching the 1999 Browns-Steelers game at Three Rivers Stadium. Admittedly, it's a game that stokes his competitive fire, a lasting, triumphant memory.
"We were all new here then, and none of us had experienced going into Three Rivers Stadium," Dawson said. "Coming out with a win, we learned real quickly how much it means to this city to beat Pittsburgh."
If first-year team president Mike Holmgren gauges progress by how well the Browns perform against the Steelers, then oft-maligned coach Eric Mangini could have a difficult time convincing Holmgren to spare his job if the Browns lose to the Steelers for the 22nd time since 1999.
On Friday, Mangini acknowledged he'll meet with Holmgren to discuss the Browns' future, one he considers to be bright and full of promise.
A year ago, the Browns defeated a disjointed, reeling Steelers team in December. That victory supposedly was a springboard for a promising 2010 season, and it was enough for Mangini to keep his job despite a 5-11 record.
This time, it appears Mangini isn't likely to survive — win or lose.
Holmgren faces a daunting challenge in making the Browns relevant in Cleveland during the post-LeBron era. In a city where the Indians and Cavs have crushed the fans' spirits, the demands are seemingly greater on Holmgren to manufacture a winner.
First, the Browns must draw even with the Steelers.
"I don't know how you turn it around, but there's been a long history with this game," Bowens said. "Beating the Steelers at the end of the season created some big feelings in this town that still exist.
"We've been playing every team tough. It's just been a matter of finishing off games, and that's what separates us from Pittsburgh."
What really separates the Browns from the Steelers is simple: winning.
Still, the Browns prepared this week as if they're playing for a playoff berth. In reality, a number of players are in the same precarious position as Mangini with the future clearly in doubt.
"It's a great rivalry, and there's no better way to end the season," Bowens said. ""I told the younger guys no game is more important than the other. Anytime you're on the field, you're being scrutinized whether you know or not.
"It's more important in this game because we have nothing to win. People don't have one foot on the airplane. They are giving it all this week. How do you play when there's nothing to play for. In this game, you just play hard."
"We never prepare to lose," Bowens said. "Our effort has been there, and that's all you can ask for. The attitude is a great, and we still view this game as a steppingstone to something better."