Steelers-Browns: This One Matters

It's understandable that some fans might want the Browns to lose out, so they can have the top pick in the draft. But... a Browns win Thursday would not only be a knockout blow for Pittsburgh, but a key step for Cleveland.

By Steve King

Browns owner Randy Lerner isn't talking to anyone publicly about the mess that it is football team right now, and it isn't clear who – if anyone – is advising him, or if he's listening to that person.

He likes to fly well under the radar screen – that's just who he is, avoiding the spotlight at all costs and trying to be the antitheses of former Browns owner Art Modell, the man from whom his late father, Al, became estranged in his later years – and this is a prime example of that. A man should be allowed to run his business as he sees fit. After all, it is his business.

Still, the cloudiness of it all makes it impossible to knows how Lerner views the current situation and the current head coach, Eric Mangini, but logic would seem to indicate that Mangini could possibly save his job if his team would stun the reeling the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Don't talk about beating the Kansas City Chiefs in the next game after that, on Dec. 20, and what that might do for Mangini's job security.

It doesn't matter.

Don't talk about beating the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 27, and what that might do for Mangini's job security.

It doesn't matter.

Don't talk about beating the Jacksonville Jaguars on Jan. 4 in the season finale, and what that might do for Mangini's job security.

It doesn't matter.

With all due respect to the Chiefs, Raiders and Jaguars, beating those teams would not move the exzcitement/hope meter one inch in Cleveland.

But beating the Steelers would.

It definitely would matter,

A lot.

Although it doesn't appear Mangini really grasps it, despite what he has said this week, the games against the Steelers are defining ones for any Browns coach. They are the equivalent of games against Michigan for any Ohio State coach, which is why Jim Tressel is on such solid ground in Columbus.

The road to the AFC North championship runs through Pittsburgh. It has been that way for some time now. The fact the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Steelers both times this year for the first time since 1998 is the biggest reason why they're in command in the division this year.

Including the two playoff defeats following the 1994 and 2002 seasons, the Browns have lost 12 straight to the Steelers, 18 of 19 and 25 of 28 dating back to the 1993 regular-season finale. The Browns need to start winning to re-ignite this rivalry.

And Mangini needs to win – Thursday – to re-ignite his job status.

The Browns are 1-11 and are on their way to having their worst-ever season record-wise, and in so many other ways that you can't begin to even count them all. Mangini can't do anything about that nightmare. It's history.

But he can atone – perceptually, at least – for some of what has happened by defeating the Steelers.

Mangini talks all the time about the rebuilding of this team being "a process," and in that regard, then, a win over the Steelers would take the plodding-along pace of that effort thus far and attach a rocket to it. In terms of a building block, it would make all other building blocks Mangini has laid thus far to be veritable pebbles that would be crushed to sand under the weight of this one.

It would immediately get everyone's attention – on the team, in the organization, in the community, in the NFL – and make a statement that yes, the Browns are getting better.

Combined, beating the Chiefs, Raiders and Jaguars would do none – let us repeat that, NONE – of that.

As mentioned, they don't matter one iota.

And what would make a victory over the Steelers, who have lost four straight to fall to a very un-Steelers-like 6-6, even bigger is the fact it would all but knock them out of the playoff race. Think about that, you not only beat your arch rivals, but you also put the final nail into their coffin.

How cool would that be?

Very much so, considering where the Browns – and Mangini – are at right now.

Steelers fans are howling – and rightfully so – about the way their team has dominated the Browns, especially in this expansion era.

But what those fans may not know – or refuse to recognize – is how the Browns dominated the rivalry for the first two decades of its existence. From when it began in 1950 as they entered the NFL from the All-America Football Conference and were placed into the American, and later, Eastern Conference with the Steelers, the Browns won the first eight games, 12 of 13, 16 of 18, 21 of 27, and 32 of 41.

In 1951, the Browns pulled off the rare daily double, not only winning the season series, but shutting out the Steelers both times, 17-0 and 28-0.

In the first four games between the teams, the Browns outscored the Steelers 120-24. Later on, the Browns outscored the Steelers 113-28 over the span of three games. The Browns scored 40 or more points five times in the first 25 games. A little later, over eight games, the Browns scored 41 or more points on four occasions, and over 31 two other times.

That's a history lesson. No charge for educating you, Steelers fans. It's on me.

The fact the Browns dominated early, and that the Steelers have dominated lately, is why this series is basically even after nearly 60 years, with Pittsburgh owning a 58-55 regular-season advantage and a 60-55 edge overall.

The series began to change in 1970, still two full years before the Steelers would play their first playoff game in history – and the Browns already had eight league championships under their belts (did you know that, Steelers fans?). That's when Three Rivers Stadium opened and Steelers head coach Chuck Noll, a Cleveland Benedictine High School graduate and a Browns messenger guard/linebacker for seven seasons in the 1950s and a member of two of those league title clubs (again, no charge for that history lesson, Steelers fans), began to really implement his program while in his second year.

The Steelers started the famous 16-game "Three Rivers Jinx" by routing the Browns there the first four times, 28-9, 26-9, 30-0 and 33-6, in that order.

After two decades of getting pounded silly, their noses bloodied beyond recognition to the point that it had ceased to become a rivalry in a competitive sense, the Steelers finally delivered a series of roundhouse blows that really connected. They took a match and re-lit the rivalry.

Now the Browns need to have that same kind of coming into their own and start hitting back and making it hurt – a lot – over a long period of time.

But it has to start with just one game, and the Browns have that opportunity on Thursday.

Moreover, Mangini has that opportunity.

Can he make his biggest impression yet? Can the Browns make their biggest impression in years?

We'll see.

Team-wise, a victory won't be enough to save this season, but it might be enough to start saving future seasons by getting the club back on the right track.

And for Eric Mangini personally, a victory won't be enough to wipe away what has occurred through 12 games, but it would be the greatest advertisement he could deliver to anyone and everyone, especially Randy Lerner, that he deserves to go into 2010.

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