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Once, twice, three times … no big deal

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2003

Enough, already, about how tough it will be for the Steelers to beat the Cleveland Browns three times in one season.

This hoary sporting bromide sounds reasonable at a quick listen, but doesn't hold up to closer scrutiny.

Has everyone forgotten 1994, when the Steelers beat the Brown,s 17-10, and 17-7 during the regular season• Two close games. Similar scores. A third meeting in the playoffs likely would produce more of the same, maybe even with Cleveland ending up the winner. Except, when it happened, the Steelers scored on each of their first three possessions and won easily, 29-9.

Then, there is league history. Since 1933, there have been 25 instances where a team that swept another in the regular season met that team again in the playoffs. The team that won the regular-season games, won the playoff contest 15 of 25 times. That's a 60 percent success rate. Even better, when the superior team from the regular season played the playoff game at home, the record is 13-5, a success rate of 72 percent.

This, not how hard it is to beat a team three times, is what the focus should have been this week.

Bless them, several Steelers players departed from the party line and admitted to liking their chances Sunday against the Browns, specifically because they already have beaten them twice this season.

"When you beat a team, you have the advantage. Mentally," defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen said, emphasizing the last point. "You want to be the team that won the first two. Period."

This makes sense. Put yourself in the place of the Browns. You lost to the Steelers in overtime, 16-13, Sept. 29 at Heinz Field. You could have won in overtime, but von Oelhoffen blocked a 45-yard field-goal try. You later blocked a Steelers' bid for a winning field goal, but they got it back and tried again, successfully.

No doubt, you eagerly anticipated the Nov. 3 rematch in Cleveland. But, when it came, the Steelers dominated the game. Oh, you ended up making it a close final, 23-20, but the Steelers outgained you 255-157 through the air and 136-36 on the ground. Only Dennis Northcutt's 87-yard punt return for a touchdown kept this from being a total domination on the scoreboard.

So, you're the Cleveland Browns. You've lost in overtime once and lost worse than the final score indicated the second time. Would you really be eager — pleased even — to have to play again the team you couldn't beat twice previously?

Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox wouldn't.

"I would much rather have beaten them the first two times and be going into it trying to beat them a third time than splitting, or losing the first two," he said. "It's a good situation for us. We just have to go out there and play well."

Wide receiver Hines Ward found the current situation similar to last year's playoffs, when the Steelers played division rival Baltimore in the first round.

The Steelers had dominated the Ravens statistically in the first 2001 meeting, at Heinz Field, but lost, 13-10.

In the rematch at Baltimore, the Steelers outgained the Ravens 476-207 and won, 26-21.

"We felt we should have beaten Baltimore the first time. They ended up winning the ballgame," Ward said. "We went down there. We won the (division) title. We ended up playing them in the playoffs and we beat them bad, so it doesn't matter (that the Steelers already have beaten the Browns twice)."

The Browns have indicated otherwise. They believe familiarity with the Steelers aids their cause. What else can they say• It's unrealistic to expect them to confess they'd have rather played any other team than one that's beaten them twice already this season. Beyond that, the Steelers have five consecutive wins against the Browns. They have won 12 of the past 14, dating back to the original Browns.

If I'm the Browns, I'd be sorely disappointed that I'm again facing the Steelers.

If I'm the Steelers, I'd be licking my chops.

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