The division is new, the rivalry familiar. And for the first time in quite some time, the bitter feud between Browns and the Steelers is expected to decide the division title.
While the Browns are expected to be an improved team in '02, the Steelers are coming off a 13-3 campaign, and are the odds on favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. They lost only one player of significance, our new middle linebacker Earl Holmes, and replaced him with a very capable player in James Farrior. The rest of their defense remains deep, talented, and unaffected. On the offensive side of the ball, they return all six contributors from the league's best offensive line last season and added Terence Mathis and Atwaan Randle-El to a receiving corp that already included Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward, both of whom amassed over 1,000 yards receiving a year ago.
Words cannot explain how bad I hate this football team. The one season Rooney decides to spend money just happens to coincide with the year the Browns are ready to emerge, and comes at a time when we could least afford for them to get any better.
With realignment and the creation of two new divisions in the NFL this season, just two wildcard teams will make the playoffs in each conference this season. More than ever, a premium will be placed on division play and division titles. It's very feasible that a ten win team placing second in their division could be shut out of the playoffs by a division winner with an 8-8 record. The Browns go from playing ten division games a year ago to just six this season, and three of those six games take place in the first five weeks of the season. Getting off to a good start, as well as taking care of business in division play, will both be crucial elements to a potentially successful season.
The Ravens, in addition to playing their home games in the STD capital of America, are a shell of their former self. Salary cap hell, self-inflicted by The Traitor's painfully successful "win at all costs" strategy, has crippled the franchise and ripped their once feared defense apart at the seams. While their cruel victory in that game two Januarys ago still haunts me, watching their franchise crumble to pieces in the years leading up to The Traitor's eradication from the NFL will slowly ease my pain.
And as far as the Bengals go, I scoff at the so-called experts that are predicting a nine or ten win season from them. Jon Kitna? Gus Frerotte? Akili Smith? Bring ‘em on. Isn't Jerry Springer still mayor down there? In an age of uncertainty we can always count on death, taxes, and the Bengals being comically woeful. I've carefully recorded the e-mail addresses of all the national pundits predicting nine plus wins for the Bungals this season, and I will relish reminding them how foolish they were once December rolls around.
Clearly, the team that presents the biggest roadblock to what we want to accomplish in Cleveland this season is our old nemesis that don the nauseating black and gold. Week four and week nine are the showdowns. The Browns have the bye in week ten, and then head into the final portion of their season where their last seven games appear very winnable; trips to Cincinnati, New Orleans, Jacksonville, and Baltimore mixed in with home dates against Carolina, Indianapolis, and Atlanta. The mindset must be a division title, and I'll take our defense and quarterback over theirs any day of the week.
While it will be an uphill battle for our relatively young and untested franchise, the Steelers are ultimately capped at how good they can be based on the liabilities of their signal caller. Just when everyone thought he had finally gotten it, he melted down on the biggest stage possible against the Pats with a Super Bowl berth hanging in the balance. Even more enjoyable to Browns fans was his post-game interview where he appeared unconcerned about the woeful performance he just gave, constantly stating how "we've had a great season, and have nothing to be disappointed about". Despite a "career season" for Kordell last year, he still ended with just 14 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
Both rivals have nearly all of their core players signed for the next three to four seasons, and both teams are relatively young. This season will mark the rebirth of the fierce hatred between the two teams, and I'm fully expecting it to reach new heights in the immediate years to follow. It has been tempered to some extent over the past three seasons due to two factors. The fact that the Browns had not yet worked their way up to contender status, and each team's respective rivalry with the Baltimore Ravens. The Browns-Ravens rivalry should slightly subside as The Traitor falls by the wayside, and the Steelers-Ravens rivalry will simmer as their games with the cellar dwelling Ratbirds become less and less meaningful as the years go by. It's now evident that the final stages of the Browns resuscitation under Butch Davis will go straight through Pittsburgh each season, adding fuel to the inferno of hatred that burns between the two blue-collar rivals of many years.
The rivalry was never gone, but this is the year it gets ugly again. And finally, things will be back to normal.