With their biggest rival coming to town and first place in the AFC North Division on the line, the Browns saw the day as a chance to make a statement.
"We didn't make the statement we wanted to make," said Browns quarterback Tim Couch. "We felt we had a great chance to win this game, and we did have a good chance.
The Browns gave themselves a chance with a quick start that included an electrifying 87-yard first-quarter punt return by Dennis Northcutt. But too many mistakes and too much of Amos Zereoue helped the Pittsburgh Steelers escape with a 23-20 victory that probably never should have been that close.
Behind Zereoue's career-high 111 rushing yards and an offense that threw every gadget play in the playbook at the Browns, the Steelers dominated the day. Yet somehow, the Browns managed to dodge bullet after bullet to keep themselves in the game.
Northcutt's punt return and a second-quarter touchdown drive - highlighted by a 63-yard bomb from Couch to Quincy Morgan - helped the Browns build a 14-3 lead. The big play to Morgan set up Couch's 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Steve Heiden on fourth down.
"After that, we had the game right there for the taking," said Browns safety Devin Bush. "We came out playing hard and should have taken control of the game, but we didn't. We let them hang in there, just like the first game (a 16-13 Steelers overtime win Sept. 29), and now we have to dig ourselves out of another hole."
The loss dropped the Browns (4-5) to 1 1/2 games behind the Steelers (5-3) in the standings. The Steelers are a perfect 4-0 in the division.
After the Browns grabbed the early lead, the Steelers opened up the playbook, lining up wide receivers Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward at quarterback, throwing flea-flickers and reverse passes, and a play offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey called "the hot-potato" with quarterback Tommy Maddox, lateraling to Randle El, who quickly shoveled a pass to Zereoue. The gadget plays kept the Browns defense off balance, and more importantly helped the Steelers keep the ball moving.
"We used pretty much everything today," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "We have been holding a couple of these plays because in the last few weeks, we have been getting off to good starts."
The Steelers needed the trick plays to come back from the 14-3 deficit, scoring on Maddox touchdown passes of 20 yards to Ward and 1-yard to tight end Mark Bruener in the second quarter for a 17-14 halftime lead.
Once ahead, the Steelers controlled the ball by grinding it out behind Zereoue, who filled in admirably as the feature back with Jerome Bettis sidelined by a knee injury.
"I always felt I could be a (feature back)," said Zereoue. "It was just a matter of going out there and proving I could do it."
The Steelers finished the game by controlling the time of possession, holding the ball for more than 42 of the game's 60 minutes. The Browns had the ball for just 17:50, running 42 offensive plays compared to 85 by the Steelers.
While Zereoue was tough to stop, the Browns actually were their own worst enemy. Key defensive penalties helped extend several Steelers drives, and penalties and turnovers helped bring an early end to the Browns second-half drives.
"I'm disappointed in the way we lost our composure from the middle of the second quarter until the middle of the third quarter," said Browns coach Butch Davis. "We lost our composure defensively ... When you are struggling and you can't get them off the field on third down, and they keep moving the ball up and down the field, they turned the whole momentum on us. We went from being up 14-3 to being down 17-14.
"I'm very disappointed in the number of penalties (11 for 85 yards), especially the ones that negated big plays offensively. We get a big (pass) to Morgan that takes us down inside the Steelers' 25-yard line (in the third quarter), and it gets called back. We are just not a good enough football team to overcome when you hurt yourself with that many penalties."
The Browns also turned the ball over in the third quarter when Couch fumbled a snap from center Dave Wohlabaugh, and threw a pair of interceptions forcing passes into coverage. Part of the problem may have been the beating Couch endured. The Steelers sacked Couch four times and hit knocked down even more. On one hit, Couch (15-of-24, 181 yards) suffered a cut on his throwing hand, forcing him to get X-rays to make sure the hand was not broken.
Another problem was the Browns dismal running game, which totalled just 36 yards on 14 attempts.
Trailing 23-14 late in the fourth quarter, Couch managed to lead one final scoring drive to give the Browns some late hope. The only time the Browns spread the field with four receivers against the Steelers defense, Couch marched the team 73 yards in eight plays, tossing a 31-yard touchdown pass to Morgan, who out-jumped Steelers cornerback Dwayne Washington for the ball in the end zone.
"When the ball is up there like that, you just have to want it more than the other guy," said Morgan, who caught four passes for 98 yards. "I knew I needed to find a way to come down with that ball if we were going to have a chance."
The Browns were offered a slim chance at a last-minute, game-winning drive, but after starting the game's final possession at their own 11-yard line with 57 seconds remaining and no timeouts, they never had a chance.
WHAT NOW ... Trailing the Steelers by 1 1/2 games in the AFC North Division standings, the Browns know they have an up-hill battle after next week's bye if they hope to win a playoff berth.
"It's real tough, no doubt about it," said Browns linebacker Earl Holmes. "You have a chance to be where you want to be, especially in an open weekend ... This was a setback. There is still a lot of football left. We just have to go back in and correct the mistakes we made and continue to work on the things that we are doing well."
With next weekend off, the Browns need to have some of their injured players heal if they hope to make a run in the second half of the season. The Browns played without starting defensive backs Corey Fuller (hamstring) and Robert Griffith (shoulder) Sunday. Defensive end Kenard Lang suffered a groin injury and linebacker Kevin Bentley broke his hand in the first half of the game. Lang did not return, but Bentley played in the second half with his hand in a cast. Both players expect to be ready when the Browns travel to Cincinnati Nov. 17.
Running back Jamel White left the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury. He did not return.
LOOKING LIKE A NO. 1 ... After failing to record a sack in the season's first eight weeks, Browns defensive end finally played like a No. 1 overall pick. Brown sacked Maddox twice, had another sack erased by a penalty, and batted down a pass by Maddox in the fourth quarter with an athletic leap.
Brown was also a force against the run. He finished with a team-high 10 tackles, including seven solos, two passes defended and a forced fumble.
ON A ROLL ... Dennis Northcutt continues to rebuild his career after a disappointing first two seasons. His 87-yard punt return in the first quarter was his second return for a score this season.
Only Eric Metcalf has returned two punts for touchdowns in the same season - Eric Metcalf in 1994. The 87-yard return by Northcutt was the third longest in franchise history.
INTERCEPTION FREE ... FOR A WHILE ... Couch set a personal record by throwing 122 consecutive passes, in the last three games, without an interception before being picked off by Steelers safety Brent Alexander on his first attempt of the third quarter.
Couch's previous career high for consecutive passes without an interception was 120 last season.