CLEVELAND (AP) — Upon taking over as Browns owner last summer, Jimmy Haslam said one of his first priorities was to revive the Cleveland-Pittsburgh rivalry.
It’s been dead for years.
Once the NFL’s equivalent to the Hatfields vs. McCoys in helmets and shoulder pads, the two-times-per-season clash between the Steelers and Browns has lost its luster. Pittsburgh has dominated the matchup between the AFC North neighbors, winning 16 of the past 17 games and 22 of 24 heading into this week’s game.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence the Browns plan to give away white flags to their fans on Sunday. They seem to have surrendered.
And while the Steelers might view the Baltimore Ravens as their most bitter foe, the folks in Cleveland still see the yellow and black as pure evil.
“The first thing I heard from fans when I got in town is, ‘If you beat the Steelers you don’t buy a steak for a long time,'” Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden said. “I’m going to hold some of those people to that.”
If Weeden wants to get some free meals, and if the Browns (2-8) truly intend to begin evening the score with the Steelers (6-4), this would be the time to start.
Because of injuries, Pittsburgh is down to third-string quarterback Charlie Batch, who has been pressed into duty with both Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich nursing injuries. The 37-year-old Batch has led the Steelers to victories before while filling in for Roethlisberger and knows he needs to hold things down.
The Steelers trail first-place Baltimore by two games and can’t afford to fall further behind.
“There’s a lot on the line because we’re still in the hunt for everything,” said Batch, whose previous start came on Christmas Eve last season. “At this point we still have a chance to win the division. We still have to keep up with everybody else at this point. We still can’t get ahead of ourselves. We have to go up there and figure out a way, no matter what, to get this win.”
Against Baltimore last week, the Steelers wore those hideous striped throwback uniforms. They went retro again this week by re-signing wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who last suited up in Pittsburgh’s colors in 2004.
The 35-year-old Burress, who had stints with the New York Giants, Jets and in prison since he last played for the Steelers, provides size and experience to a receiving corps thinned by injuries. He spent the past few days digging into a new playbook and believes he can make a difference down the stretch for the Steelers, who will play four of their last six inside the division.
“We’re going to go out and try to make the best of it on this run we have,” he said. “It’s November and December football. That’s when everybody begins to separate themselves. We want to be one of those teams.”
Fortunately the Steelers can count on the NFL’s top-ranked defense, which hasn’t given up more than 20 points in any of the past five games and can be a nightmare for rookie quarterbacks. At 75, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau knows all the tricks to stymie any offense.
“They’ve got guys that have been in the league for a long time,” Weeden said. “They’ve got guys that can tackle. They’ve got guys that are scheme-wise really, really good. He (LeBeau) is a big zone blitz guy. They don’t give up many big plays. They try to keep everything in front and they do a great job with it. They’ve done it for a long time and I don’t really expect it to change when we play them.”
For the Browns, Sunday presents another chance to put together a complete game. Last week’s 23-20 overtime loss in Dallas was Cleveland’s fifth by a touchdown or less this season and league-leading 18th by seven points or fewer since 2010.
Coach Pat Shurmur has made the Browns competitive. Now they must take the next step.
“We have to find a way to finish,” he said. “Simple as that.”
Rookie running back Trent Richardson stepped forward this week and put the blame for last week’s loss on his broad shoulders. Richardson, who hasn’t been at full speed following knee surgery and a rib injury, ran for 95 yards and added 49 more receiving. But as far as the first-round pick was concerned, it wasn’t enough.
“You can put the game on me. I’m a man,” he said. “I’m going to man up to my mistakes and my faults. I made my decision and I messed up. That happens when you make decisions right on the run. It just happens.”
Richardson gained just 33 yards on 12 carries after halftime and was stopped for zero yards on four attempts. In the fourth quarter, Richardson couldn’t get in from the 1-yard line on a play in which he missed the hole.
Richardson wants to be their closer.
“That’s what they picked me for,” said the No. 3 overall pick. “That’s why they moved up a spot. I do feel like it’s on me.”
Weeden wasn’t surprised by Richardson’s comments. He just disagreed with them.
“He’s a competitor and a team player,” he said. “We all made mistakes. I wouldn’t agree with him. It says a lot about his character to say that, but he’s a hell of a player. I’ll take more of the blame than he does.”
The Browns hope there’s no blame to be shared this week — just a rare win over the Steelers.
“I’ve beaten them before,” said return specialist Josh Cribbs, one of the few Cleveland players who can make that claim. “It’s been a while, but it’ll mean everything for the city and our fans. We’ve lost a lot of games, but we can make it right. This rivalry is everything to us and our fans. It’s about bragging rights.”
And for Haslam, who owned a minority share of the Steelers before he bought the Browns, it would be a start.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.