TIME: Sunday, 1 p.m. EST.
The Cleveland Browns probably didn’t think they’d have a chance to avenge two heartbreaking regular-season losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers until next year.
But in this wild NFL season, seemingly anything and everything has been possible for the Browns, including a first-round playoff matchup with the AFC North champion Steelers at Heinz Field.
Back in the playoffs for the first time since rejoining the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1999, Cleveland earned its postseason berth the hard way.
The Browns began the season with an embarrassing 40-39 loss to Kansas City, as linebacker Dwayne Rudd’s infamous helmet toss provided the Chiefs with an opportunity to win after Cleveland had all but wrapped up the victory.
Cleveland, which has had 18 of its 32 games under coach Butch Davis decided in the final minute, used a series of thrilling victories to stay in the playoff hunt, including a 21-20 win at Jacksonville on Dec. 8 which was decided on Tim Couch’s 50-yard pass to Quincy Morgan as time expired.
The Browns earned their playoff spot last Sunday in typical fashion.
Forced to play much of the season finale without Couch, who suffered a broken leg in the second quarter, the Browns rallied for a 24-16 win over Atlanta.
The game again was not decided until the final minute, when the Browns stopped the Falcons at the 1 with a goal-line stand.
“This game was a microcosm of the whole season,” Davis said. “What can you say?
“I’m convinced we earned this playoff berth because our players never quit fighting. A playoff berth validates that we are progressing as a football team.”
The Browns’ late-game karma didn’t have any effect on the Steelers, who beat them 16-13 in overtime at Heinz Field on Sept. 29 and rallied for a 23-20 victory at Cleveland on Nov. 3.
The second loss left the Browns with a 4-5 mark and seemingly little hope of making a run at the postseason. But they won five of their last seven, and are looking forward to ending a four-game losing streak to the Steelers since Davis arrived in Cleveland two seasons ago.
“I’m glad we’ve got Pittsburgh,” Browns wide receiver Dennis Northcutt said. “It’s a team that’s in our division, a team we think we can beat.”
Kelly Holcomb will start at quarterback in place of the injured Couch.
“I don’t think you can ask for a better scenario,” Holcomb said after learning that Couch would be sidelined for the remainder of the postseason.
The Steelers, who advanced to the AFC championship game last season before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion New England, earned their seventh division title in 11 years under Bill Cowher.
The former Browns linebacker knows his club will get a tough challenge from Cleveland.
“Do we have a difficult road ahead of us? Yeah, we do,” Cowher said. “But that’s what sports are all about. It’s about seizing opportunities when they come and not getting caught up in hype or worrying where you have to go next.
“You climb one little hill at a time and, before you know it, you might be at the top.”
Pittsburgh won the only previous postseason meeting between these longtime NFL rivals, 29-9 at Three Rivers Stadium in an AFC divisional game in 1994.
That victory gave the Steelers a 3-0 mark against the Browns that season— something Pittsburgh hopes to duplicate Sunday.
“We played each other very tight and both games were very close,” Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said. “It tells you these teams are pretty evenly matched.”
STANDINGS: Browns - 2nd place, AFC North. Steelers - 1st place, AFC North.
BROWNS LEADERS: Offense - Couch, 2,842 passing yards and 18 passing TDs; William Green, 887 rushing yards and 6 rushing TDs; Kevin Johnson, 67 receptions; Quincy Morgan, 964 receiving yards and 7 receiving TDs. Defense - Earl Holmes, 128 tackles; Mark Word, 8 sacks; Earl Little, 4 INTs.
STEELERS LEADERS: Offense - Tommy Maddox, 2,836 passing yards and 20 passing TDs; Amos Zereoue, 762 rushing yards; Bettis, 9 rushing TDs; Hines Ward, 112 receptions, 1,329 receiving yards and 12 receiving TDs. Defense - Joey Porter, 89 tackles; Porter and Jason Gildon, 9 sacks; Porter and Brent Alexander, 4 INTs.
BROWNS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 100.9 yards per game (23rd in NFL); Passing Offense - 213.2 ypg (18th); Total Offense - 314.2 ypg (23rd). Rushing Defense - 129.9 ypg (27th); Passing Defense - 204.3 ypg (14th); Total Defense - 334.2 ypg (21st).
STEELERS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 132.5 ypg (9th); Passing Offense - 239.5 ypg (7th); Total Offense - 372 ypg (5th). Rushing Defense - 85.9 ypg (1st); Passing Defense - 216.2 ypg (20th); Total Defense - 302.2 ypg (7th).
LAST MEETING: Nov. 3; Steelers, 23-20. At Cleveland, Maddox threw two TD passes and Zereoue ran for 111 yards as Pittsburgh overcame a 14-3 deficit.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Browns - QB Holcomb, who started the first two games while Couch was sidelined with a shoulder injury, has completed 64 of 106 passes for 790 yards with eight TDs and four INTs in five games. … With Couch out, rookie RB Green figures to receive a heavy workload. After failing to run for more than 36 yards in the Browns’ first nine games, Brown amassed 726 rushing yards in the final six weeks, including a season-best 178 against the Falcons in the finale. Steelers - RB Bettis, who sat out the season finale with a hyperextended knee, expects to play Sunday. Bettis ran for just 24 yards on 14 carries in the Sept. 29 game against Cleveland, and missed the second meeting with a groin injury. … QB Maddox, named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year on Thursday, made his season debut against the Browns on Sept. 29. He replaced the struggling Kordell Stewart and led the Steelers to their first win of the season.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Browns - 6-2 on the road; Steelers - 5-2-1 at home.