The Browns and Steelers finish the regular season Sunday at Heinz Field and renew what had once been one of the most contentious rivalries in the NFL.
The rivalry took a hiatus after Art Modell moved the Browns franchise to Baltimore, and the luster hasn’t returned to it since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999. The Steelers have lost to the Browns just five times since 1999, and Cleveland hasn’t won in Pittsburgh since 2003.
The Browns will try to snap a nine-game losing streak Sunday at Heinz Field and extinguish what remains of the Steelers’ playoff hopes. NFL Nation reporters Pat McManamon (Browns) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.
Scott Brown: Pat, what type of effort and performance do you expect to see out of the Browns on Sunday?
Pat McManamon: Well Scott, you’ve seen how these late-season games between these teams have gone. This should not be any different than the past four -- which were ugly. It also should be pretty similar to what we saw against the Jets. The Browns were lifeless, lackluster and gave every impression they have their cars packed and ready to get out of town -- if not physically, then mentally.
A team that loses constantly and starts losing at the end of the season has a hard time pulling it together. All are true of the Browns. The coaches are trying, but the players ... well ... this could be like a lot of season finales against the Steelers: ugly.
Do folks in Pittsburgh marvel at the Browns' annual struggles? It’s like the winter [solstice]. It comes every year.
Brown: I think older fans who remember the Browns teams before they were uprooted are actually a little bit wistful about what Cleveland’s struggles have meant for this rivalry. It has become too one-sided for the Browns to even be in the conversation of the Steelers’ chief rival, and that is sad given the proximity of the two working-class cities, the Browns’ history and how passionate their fans are despite the franchise’s struggles since the NFL returned to Cleveland.
I wonder if younger fans here look at the Browns the way they did the Pirates when the latter endured two decades of losing. They don’t see the tradition, the great fan support. They see a franchise that can’t get out of its own way and is not one to be taken seriously. All of that could change if the Browns continue to build on what appears to be a solid nucleus and add the obvious missing piece sooner rather than later.
Speaking of which, how close are the Browns to winning and is it simply a matter of getting the right quarterback to pull everything together?
McManamon: A few weeks ago it would have been convenient to say the Browns were a quarterback away. That was the simple solution. It also was the wrong solution. A quarterback is needed, yes, but so is a lot more. And once the Browns let center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward leave via free agency -- there has been no effort to sign them -- there will be two more self-created holes to fill.
The Browns need a quarterback, a running back, a fullback, a second and third receiver, two or three offensive linemen, a second corner, a safety and perhaps another inside linebacker. Or two. If that doesn’t sound like a two- or three-year rebuilding project, it’s hard to say what does.
The Steelers need a ton of help to reach the playoffs. Do you think it’s possible?
Brown: It’s possible, but still very unlikely. First things first, the Steelers have to take care of their own business and beat the Browns. I do think they will win, but it is anything but a guarantee. The Steelers have had some bad losses this season, and anyone who thinks the Browns can’t add another one to their total needs only to be referred to games against the Vikings, Raiders and Dolphins.
If the Steelers won any one of those three games they wouldn’t have needed nearly as much help as they do to get into the playoffs. As it stands, the Steelers need to beat the Browns and also for the Jets, Bengals and Chiefs to win. It sounds like the Chiefs are going to rest some of their key starters, so even if the three things that need to happen in the 1 p.m. ET games come through, the Steelers might not get the cooperation they need from Kansas City in San Diego. I will say this: The Steelers would love to take their chances on the Chiefs in the late-afternoon game, but I’m not sure they get wins from both the Jets and the Bengals.
Pat, given the futility that has plagued the Browns’ organization, do you think it ever reaches a point where a significant numbers of fans will desert the team because they are so fed up with losing?
McManamon: What’s amazing is it hasn’t happened yet, Scott. The Browns treat their fans like sheep, and the sheep just keep coming back. Six years in a row of 11-loss seasons add up to six years in a row of frustration. Empty promise has built on empty promise. A good portion of the fan base does seem turned off, but just as many are (again) excited about having a high draft pick. It’s mind-boggling. The Browns smack their fans in the face over and over and over, yet they keep coming back to be smacked again. Call them loyal, call them lemmings. They just keep coming back.
What’s the future for Pittsburgh? The Steelers seem to be in a period of transition. Can they do it on the fly and still continue the winning tradition?
Brown: I’m a lot more optimistic for the Steelers’ future than I was a couple of months ago. The offense has really come together, and I think it has a chance to carry the team while the Steelers retool their defense. The Steelers have a lot of youth on offense, starting with rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, and the line is relatively young too. If it could ever stay healthy, it could develop into a strength, and the Steelers may take a left tackle with one of their top picks in the 2014 draft.
The biggest reason I don’t think the Steelers are facing a rebuilding period: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still in his prime and has played at a very high level this season. If the Steelers’ record was better, we’d be talking about this probably being Roethlisberger’s best season, and he said earlier this week that he feels his best football is still ahead of him.
Pat, if I’m convinced of anything in the NFL it is this: If you have a quarterback, you have a chance. Look at the respective paths the Browns and Steelers have taken since the former passed on Roethlisberger in the 2004 draft to take tight end Kellen Winslow. It is a case study in how important quarterbacks are in the NFL.