PITTSBURGH - The last time a Browns-Steelers game meant this much Kelly Holcomb played quarterback, Dennis Northcutt dropped the key pass and Butch Davis inexplicably changed defensive philosophies in the second half as the Browns lost their only playoff game since returning to the NFL.
Five years later, the buzz is back in Cleveland`s best rivalry.
The Browns (5-3) took a bus down the turnpike Saturday knowing first place in the AFC North is at stake today. A Browns win would forge a tie in the division. A Steelers
(6-2) win would give them a two-game cushion with seven to play.
No one saw this coming two months ago. Pittsburgh walked into Cleveland Browns Stadium in Week 1, won 34-7 and precipitated a trade of quarterback Charlie Frye with five sacks in a quarter and a half.
"The first week, that wasn`t us," said left guard Eric Steinbach, who`s questionable for today with a back injury.
The numbers support his claim. The Browns are 5-2 since the opening debacle - the losses coming on a blocked field goal in Oakland and at unbeaten New England - and quarterback Derek Anderson is making a case for the Pro Bowl. He`s fourth in the NFL with 17 touchdown passes, and the Browns are averaging 31.4 points since he took over as starter.
"There are a lot of differences, but that would be the biggest difference," receiver Braylon Edwards said of Anderson. He`ll be a difference-maker for us (today)."
Other differences from the opener: Rookie left tackle Joe Thomas had never played in an NFL game, Steinbach hadn`t played in the preseason, Ryan Tucker (he`ll start at right guard) was serving a steroids suspension, rookie cornerback Eric Wright had never played in an NFL game and punter Dave Zastudil was out with a back injury.
"We had the same type of energy Week 1, but I just think we`re going to handle it a lot differently this time," Edwards said. "We love the game, we love what we`ve been doing. We`re going to go out and do the same things we`ve been doing."
History isn`t on their side. The Browns are 10-point underdogs and haven`t won four in a row since 1994. They`ve lost eight straight and 14 of 15 in the rivalry, and only eight players on the 53-man roster have beaten Pittsburgh.
"They are going to have to start picking it up or we`re going to have to stop calling it a rivalry," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said.
"That`s his opinion," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. "It just takes one win. People remember what you did lately."
"We`re just as sick and tired (as fans) of losing to them," center Hank Fraley said. "It`s gonna be a hard-fought game."
The Steelers have the top-ranked defense in yardage (237.8) and points allowed (12.3), and the fifth-ranked scoring offense (27.8). They are second in rushing offense (150.5) and first in passing defense (161.8). They are second in point differential, scoring 222 and allowing 98.
"They`re good in all phases," Crennel said. "We`re going to have to play our best game of the year to have a chance."
The Steelers are 4-0 at home, with the closest margin 21 points. The Browns have won just six games in 36 trips to Pittsburgh since 1970.
"There is nothing about them we don`t know," Edwards said. "They`re a good team, take nothing away from them. But the things we`ve been doing, the confidence we`ve been playing with, we`re sure we can do some things against them."
Pittsburgh is considered by most the third-best team in the AFC, a step behind New England and Indianapolis. But a physical defense, explosive running game and big-play quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) give the Steelers a chance against anyone.
"We don`t care what people think," first-year Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We`re just trying to win games week to week. It all sorts out in the wash anyway. It can`t be our concern. It`s elevator music - we hear it, but we don`t."
The growth in the confidence of the Browns is tangible. Not only have they won consistently since Anderson took over, they have shown the ability to rally from early deficits the last two weeks.
"Every win, every good game adds confidence," right tackle Kevin Shaffer said. "It`s kind of a snowball effect. We`re a completely different team in seven games."
"That`s the exciting part about going up to Pittsburgh and playing them," Steinbach said.
The excitement was felt around Northeast Ohio all week.
"This city has been waiting a long time for a winning Browns team, even through the Cavs and Indians doing their thing," Edwards said. "This is still a Browns town and a football town, so the fact that we`re winning some games and have a winning record right now, this town is beginning to come alive."
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