Steelers - Browns: Going into the homestretch

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> And down the stretch they come. <br><br> The 16-furlong race known as the NFL playoff qualifier turns into the homestretch this weekend, and the Steelers and Cleveland Browns are the two teams in the back of the pack getting all the mud kicked in their face by the frontrunners.

The 3-7 Steelers and the 4-6 Browns deserve more than those muddy slings, though, because they truly do have more than a mathematical chance of moving on to the next class of stakes races, even The Derby, because someone has to come out of the AFC North Division.

The winner certainly controls its own destiny since the division leaders are a pair of .500 teams, but the loser, particularly if it's the Steelers, can head back to the shop and have its shoes re-fitted for next year.

It's not so surprising that these two teams, who'll meet today at 1 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium, still have a chance. What's surprising, though, is these two playoff teams from a year ago are in such straits.

"It absolutely surprises me," said Browns Coach Butch Davis. "I don't think either organization imagined that this would be what the records are."

Last year, the Browns overcame a 2-5 start to make the playoffs, where they blew a 24-7 third-quarter lead to the Steelers, who rallied and advanced to the NFL quarterfinals.

This year, it's the Steelers who've gotten off to a 2-6 start and are hoping to copy what the Browns, and the New York Jets, did last year.

"If you can just maintain some composure and right the ship," explained Davis, "and if you are fortunate enough to stay healthy, you give yourself a chance."

Well, the Steelers have certainly remained healthy. The one starter who's missed significant playing time this season returns to the lineup today. Marvel Smith went down with nerve damage in his left shoulder and missed all but three plays of the last seven games. The Steelers went from 2-1 with Smith in the lineup at left tackle, to the aforementioned 3-7.

The Browns, though, are still shuffling their lineup, and much of it for the good.

Quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who threw for more yardage (429) in a non-overtime playoff game than any other quarterback in NFL history last January against the Steelers, will play Sunday. He missed the previous meeting between the teams this season with a hairline fracture in his lower right leg.

In that game, the Browns breezed to a 33-13 win as Tim Couch passed for 208 yards and running back William Green rushed for 115.

Green, of course, is under suspension by the NFL for a DUI and marijuana, and just this week was allegedly stabbed by his fiancée, the mother of his two children. Upon being injured, Green's house was searched by police, who took the rest of his pot.

The Browns will start James Jackson at halfback Sunday. It will be his fourth consecutive start after gaining 182 yards on 51 carries (3.6 avg.) in losses to New England and Kansas City and in last week's win over Arizona.

The Browns also have a new starting wide receiver after banishing starter Kevin Johnson to the waiver wire. Andre Davis moved into the starting lineup last week with Dennis Northcutt becoming the No. 3 receiver.

The Browns will also have a new tight end, and Darnell Sanders received a game ball for his blocking last week.

The same offensive line remains intact for the Browns for a second consecutive game, and defensively Kenard Lang returns to his spot at defensive end after missing the Cardinals game with back spasms.

For the most part, the Browns have all of the players they want available for duty against the Steelers, who have more to lose than do the Browns.

While only six teams have won division championships with 9-7 records, only one team, the 1985 Browns, won a division at 8-8. Never has a team won its division with a sub-.500 record. At 3-8, the Steelers would not only have to win out to finish 8-8, they'd also trail the Browns in the head-to-head tiebreaker.

"This is clearly not a 3-7 football team and anybody that mistakes that or thinks that's what they are is not watching enough film," said Davis. "These guys are dangerous in all three aspects and they're very talented. Like ourselves, they've got a lot at stake. Both teams have got a lot to play for and it should make for an electric atmosphere on Sunday."

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