The playoffs start now

Last year the playoffs began in Game 13 with a 21-9 win over the Chicago Bears. This year, due to technical difficulties, the playoffs are beginning a little earlier.

They'll start 1 p.m. Sunday in Cleveland where the 3-6 Steelers will play the 3-6 Browns in the first, let's call it, tie-in game to the NFL playoffs.

The winner moves on with at least a pipe dream of continuing a competitive season. The loser begins mapping its draft strategy.

"You wish both teams were 6-3 playing each other," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, one of the staunchest supporters of this Turnpike Rivalry. "It might take on more significance. But it's very significant from the standpoint of both teams being 3-6."

The Cleveland Browns got to 3-6 in the second year of Romeo Crennel's coaching tenure by not being able to run the ball (30th) and not being able to stop the run (30th).

The Steelers got to 3-6 because their quarterback's been in the hospital too many times and their special teams have been ravaged by injuries and personnel turnover.

The lowest-ranked element of their team is pass defense (16th), but the main problem has been a Super Bowl hangover. Willie Parker addressed that very issue two weeks ago, and then backed up his words with 213 rushing yards in a win over the New Orleans Saints.

Parker wasn't in the mood to talk to reporters this week, but the Browns were. They challenged the Steelers with strong words following their win in Atlanta. They it only amused the aroused defending champs.

"I don't know what to say about their motivation but we're going to be there," said Joey Porter. "We will be there for Sunday, ready for whatever type of war they're ready to go for. We'll definitely be there."

Was that a guarantee?

"This doesn't need a guarantee. They know what it is. We don't too much care for them; obviously they don't care for us. We'll go down there and see what happens. We're looking forward to it. I know I am."

Parker didn't need to speak about the Browns' defense; that 4.8-per-carry yield speaks volumes. The Browns also finished 30th against the run last year.

"They've been running the same defense they've been running," center Chukky Okobi said of the New England-influenced Browns defense. "It's still the same stuff."

However, the Browns are ranked first in defensive pass completion percentage, and this in spite of the loss of their top three cornerbacks.

The third cornerback, Duquesne University's Leigh Bodden, is not expected to play today, leaving Ralph Brown and Clairton High's Daven Holley as the starters. Both players were signed late in the summer to provide depth at camp. Safeties Sean Jones, Brian Russell and Brodney Pool have helped the cornerbacks, particularly Jones.

"Sean went to Georgia," Hines Ward explained. "He's a great ballplayer. I know he's been plagued with injuries over the years and really hadn't had a chance to play, but watching him on tape, he's a ballplayer. He's going to fill the holes and be right there in the run-stopping game. I'm going to have my hands full with him."

Ward explained why the Browns' pass defense has performed so well statistically. "Their front seven's applying a lot of pressure," he said. "They're doing a lot of blitzing and trying to disrupt the passing game and the run game by blitzing, and they're doing a great job of it. Even though they lost their top three corners they've yet to be exposed because they're doing a lot of blitzing and getting to the quarterbacks before the quarterback has time to throw it to his receivers."

The Browns' most productive pass rusher has been rookie outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who leads the team with 5.5 sacks and nine pressures.

Expect the Steelers to pressure Browns quarterback Charlie Frye again. They sacked him eight times the only time they faced him last year. Frey was sacked 22 times in his five starts last season. This season he's been sacked 34 times. Only Andrew Walter of the Raiders has been sacked more often (40).

"We felt like last year we had a good game plan, and if we got some one-on-one match-ups with some of the guys, we liked our chances" said James Farrior. "This year's going to be no different. We're going in with the same mindset, the same attitude."

Have they improved their offensive line?

"Yeah, they look better," Farrior said. "They look better than what they did last year. Romeo Crennel has done a great job with their team. He was one of my coaches with the Jets so I know him pretty good and I've always held him in high regard as one of the better coaches."

How he will do in his first "playoff game" remains to be seen. But Crennel's more experienced counterpart is ready.

"It's a very important game," said Cowher. "It's a divisional game, and certainly where we are this season we have no margin for error."

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