Thursday, November 21, 2013

Beware the Cleveland Browns

Since their reincarnation in 1999, the Cleveland Browns have been the second-worst team in the NFL with an overall record of 77-158. The Browns are ahead of only the Detroit Lions who are 76-160 in that span. They have only two winning seasons in that span and have had double-digit losses in all but 3 seasons. Aside from a 3-game winning streak in September, the Browns are just 1-6 this season.

So why should Steelers fans be wary of this game, aside from the fact that the Browns defense is playing very well? Look no farther than the Steelers history against the Cleveland Browns. Since 1999, the Steelers are 23-5 against the Browns, which one wouldn't think should be any cause for concern. But let's take a look at the Steelers five losses to the Browns.

The Steelers opened the 1999 season with a 43-0 shellacking of the Browns in their first game back as a franchise. The Steelers entered the second meeting that season with a 5-3 record right in the thick of the AFC playoff race. Tim Couch led the Browns back from a 15-7 fourth quarter deficit and Phil Dawson kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired. That Dawson kick is still the stuff of nightmares. The Steelers never recovered, losing their next 5 games and finishing 6-10 on the season.

On the heels of their 6-10 season in 1999 the Steelers dropped their first three games of 2000, including a 23-20 loss to the Browns in their second game. That was the Browns first win in Cleveland since their reincarnation. The Steelers turned it on after their 0-3 start and finished the season 9-7, one game shy of the playoffs. The Indianapolis Colts won the last Wild Card spot with a 10-6 record and an 8-4 conference record. The Steelers finished 9-7 with an 8-5 conference record. If Pittsburgh had beaten Cleveland, they would have finished 10-6 and with a better conference record than the Colts and would have made the playoffs as the third Wild Card.

From there, the Steelers went on a 5-game winning streak that lasted until 2003 when the Steelers had their most forgettable season of the 2000s. After a 2-2 start, the Steelers dropped an utterly embarrassing home game to the Browns 33-13. The Steelers went on to finish the year 6-10, but got a high enough draft pick that they were able to take Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers weren't even close to the playoffs in 2003.

Once Ben Roethlisberger took the helm, he utterly dominated the Browns until a fateful night in 2009 when offensive coordinator Bruce Arians shouldn't have even been allowed on the bus back to Pittsburgh. The Browns entered the game with the worst run defense in the league and the weather was in single-digits with a negative wind chill. The Steelers responded by attempting 40 passes and only 22 rushes. Ben was sacked 8 times and the Browns came out on top with a 13-6 win. The loss to Cleveland was the Steelers 5th in a row and dropped their record to 6-7. They won their last three to finish 9-7 but missed out on the playoffs. The two Wild Card spots were won by the Jets and Ravens who both also finished with 9-7 records. As in 2000, if the Steelers had simply beaten the Browns, they would have made the playoffs.

Last season, the Steelers entered the game in Cleveland with a 6-4 record and despite being without Ben Roethlisberger, were still very much alive in the AFC Playoff race. Byron Leftwich had been injured in the loss the prior week to the Ravens and Charlie Batch was under center in Cleveland against a 2-8 Browns team. The game couldn't have started better for the Steelers as Lawrence Timmons returned an interception for a touchdown on the Browns opening drive, but that was pretty much all the Steelers would be able to muster. The offense would commit an absurd 8 turnovers, with Batch throwing 3 interceptions and the Steelers fumbling 8 times with the Browns recovering 5 of them. The Steelers took a 14-13 lead into halftime but tallied only 90 yards and 4 first downs in the second half while turning the ball over 5 times. The Steelers finished the season at 8-8 with the loss to the Browns being the second in a string of games where they lost 5 of 6 to fall from 6-3 to 7-8. The Bengals were the last Wild Card team at 10-6, clinching the spot after they beat the Steelers in Week 16. A win over the Browns would not have put the Steelers in the playoffs, but the loss put them in a do-or-die position against the Bengals.

Since the Browns reincarnation in 1999, the Steelers have lost to the Browns five times and missed the playoffs in all five of those seasons. In fact, the Steelers have only missed the playoffs once in the past 14 years when they swept the Browns (2006). Losing to the Browns is a bad omen for the rest of the season, and at this point the Steelers can't afford another loss. Looking back at the five losses to the Browns, in two of the instances the Steelers would have made the playoffs if not for a loss to Cleveland. Last season the loss to the Browns put them in a bad position in the divisional standings when they faced a do-or-die game against Cincinnati later in the year. The other two seasons were 6-10 years where we didn't even sniff the playoffs. The Steelers are currently sitting at 4-6 but just one game behind the Jets and Dolphins in the race for the last playoff spot. The Browns are also 4-6, so the winner of this game will put themselves in position to make a run at the second Wild Card.

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