CLEVELAND — Upon taking over as Browns owner last summer, Jimmy Haslam said one of his first priorities was to revive the Cleveland-Pittsburgh rivalry.
It’s been dead for years.
Once the NFL’s equivalent to the Hatfields vs. McCoys in helmets and shoulder pads, the two-times-per-season clash between the Steelers and Browns has lost its luster. Pittsburgh has dominated the matchup between the AFC North neighbors, winning 16 of the past 17 games and 22 of 24 heading into this week’s game.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence the Browns plan to give away white flags to their fans on Sunday. They seem to have surrendered.
And while the Steelers might view the Baltimore Ravens as their most bitter foe, the folks in Cleveland still see the yellow and black as pure evil.
“The first thing I heard from fans when I got in town is, ‘If you beat the Steelers you don’t buy a steak for a long time,’” Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden said. “I’m going to hold some of those people to that.”
If Weeden wants to get some free meals, and if the Browns (2-8) truly intend to begin evening the score with the Steelers (6-4), this would be the time to start.
Because of injuries, Pittsburgh is down to third-string quarterback Charlie Batch, who has been pressed into duty with both Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich nursing injuries.
The 37-year-old Batch has led the Steelers to victories before while filling in for Roethlisberger and knows he needs to hold things down.
The Steelers trail first-place Baltimore by two games and can’t afford to fall further behind.
“There’s a lot on the line because we’re still in the hunt for everything,” said Batch, whose previous start came on Christmas Eve last season. “At this point we still have a chance to win the division. We still have to keep up with everybody else at this point. We still can’t get ahead of ourselves. We have to go up there and figure out a way, no matter what, to get this win.”
Against Baltimore last week, the Steelers wore those hideous striped throwback uniforms. They went retro again this week by re-signing wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who last suited up in Pittsburgh’s colors in 2004.
The 35-year-old Burress, who had stints with the New York Giants, Jets and in prison since he last played for the Steelers, provides size and experience to a receiving corps thinned by injuries.
He spent the past few days digging into a new playbook and believes he can make a difference down the stretch for the Steelers, who will play four of their last six inside the division.
“We’re going to go out and try to make the best of it on this run we have,” he said. “It’s November and December football. That’s when everybody begins to separate themselves. We want to be one of those teams.”
Fortunately the Steelers can count on the NFL’s top-ranked defense, which hasn’t given up more than 20 points in any of the past five games and can be a nightmare for rookie quarterbacks.
At 75, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau knows all the tricks to stymie any offense.