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Steelers aim for trifecta against Browns in first round

(Sports Network) - The AFC's oldest rivalry will take on added significance this Sunday, when the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers host arch-rival Cleveland for a Wild Card game at Heinz Field.

The Browns are riding high after getting into the postseason for the first time since returning to the NFL in 1999. It wasn't easy, though, as the Browns had to beat Atlanta last week and receive some help from the New York Jets to get it done. Cleveland kept its postseason dreams alive with a miraculous goal-line stand at the end of its game versus the Falcons, helping it hold on to a 24-16 victory. The Browns lived on the edge during their entire stretch run, as each of their final nine games was decided by nine points or less.

"It's been a roller coaster of a season, and the ride hasn't stopped," said quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who will lead the Browns into their first playoff game since 1994 because starter Tim Couch suffered a broken fibula in the win over Atlanta.

Pittsburgh is firing on all cylinders heading into the postseason after its 34-31 win over Baltimore. The Steelers won their last three games and five of their final six in the regular season to garner the third seed in the AFC playoffs. Pittsburgh is happy to be in the postseason, but it isn't ready to call it a season just yet.

"Now, you set a higher bar," said Steelers QB Tommy Maddox, who was named the NFL's 2002 Comeback Player of the Year. "When you start the season you want to go to the Super Bowl. You got to get in the playoffs. It is a goal of ours that we reached. I am very excited about the opportunity to play in the playoffs. This team is very excited about the opportunity that we have. I am just a part of the team and we are all excited and looking forward to this weekend."

SERIES HISTORY: Cleveland owns a 54-47 advantage in this all-time series, including playoffs. However, the Steelers have won five straight meetings, including a pair of regular-season contests in 2002. Pittsburgh won the last meeting, 23-20, at Cleveland on November 3. Maddox completed 23-of-42 passes for 239 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in the win.

Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher is 13-4 all-time versus Cleveland, while Browns head man Butch Davis is 0-4 against the Steelers.

PLAYOFF SPOTLIGHT: The Steelers are 22-16 all-time in the postseason. Pittsburgh will be making back-to-back trips to the playoffs for the first time since 1992-97. The Steelers have registered 2-2 mark in four all-time Wild Card contests.

Cleveland has registered just an 11-19 mark all-time in the postseason. The Browns haven't won a playoff tilt since 1995, when they defeated New England, 20-13, in the Wild Card round. Cleveland is 1-1 in a pair of Wild Card contests in its history.

These teams have met only one time in playoff history, when the Steelers registered a 29-9 win over the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium in January 1995. The Steelers completed the trifecta during the '94 season by sweeping the regular-season series from the Browns and then knocking them out of the playoffs.


Many Browns fans got what they wanted with Holcomb being forced into duty last week after Couch's season-ending injury. Holcomb had stepped in nicely for Couch earlier in the season en route to registering the highest QB rating in the league. However, he was getting the job done when the pressure was minimal. With the playoffs upon him, Holcomb will have to perform at high level in the midst of a storm of Steel City faithful.

In a pressure-packed environment last week, Holcomb struggled, completing just 7-of-14 passes for 68 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown. The veteran signal-caller's throws often seemed to be rushed and misguided in the narrow win over Atlanta. Nonetheless, Davis thinks that getting Holcomb more work in practice this week will make a big difference in his production on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

"Getting Kelly back into the flow of taking 80-to-85 percent of the snaps in practice this week will certainly help him be able to execute the game plan," Davis said. "He’s smart. He just needs to throw and get back into the rhythm and sync of it."

"It’s been a while since I took a bunch of reps in practice," Holcomb admitted. "When you do that, you gain some confidence."

Holcomb's young and talented receiving corps, which flourished with him on the field earlier in the year, has nothing but confidence in the 29-year-old quarterback.

"Things happen for a reason," Browns WR Dennis Northcutt said. "Those two games early in the year when Kelly played so well helped him and helped everyone on this team know that he can get the job done. We have all the confidence in the world in Kelly. We’ve seen him do it before."

For the most part, the Browns' top receivers were held in check last week against the Falcons. Andre Davis caught two balls for 36 yards and Kevin Johnson added a pair of receptions for 32 yards and a score. Quincy Morgan chipped in with two catches for 32 yards in the win. The Browns' deep receiving corps should challenge the Pittsburgh secondary this week.

Steelers veteran corner Chad Scott, a key cog to the secondary, should be back after missing a game due to a broken hand. Pittsburgh will be getting its first look at Holcomb, as Couch played in both meetings during the regular season.

"They are similar," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior of Holcomb and Couch. "I think Holcomb might be a little more accurate with his throws. He has to sit back in the pocket; he is not as mobile as Couch. They are both good quarterbacks. We’ll pretty much prepare the same way as we do for Couch."

Pittsburgh's pass defense steadily improved throughout the season, climbing to 10th in the AFC (216.3 yards per game). Of course, the team's numbers were skewed by its first two games, in which it surrendered 649 passing yards combined to New England and Oakland.

The Steelers did have a letdown in their regular-season finale, though, allowing Baltimore to rack up 308 yards through the air. Don't expect a repeat performance this week, as Pittsburgh will be well-prepared for Holcomb and the Browns' passing attack. Pittsburgh will need more big plays out of its secondary, including CB Dewayne Washington and safeties Brent Alexander and Lee Flowers.

The Steelers will have to deal with a much more potent Cleveland offense this time around, however. The Browns had essentially no running game in the first two meetings between these clubs, posting a combined 159 yards on the ground.

However, since the bye week following the second Pittsburgh loss, Davis has forced his offense to dedicate itself to the run game and rookie William Green. The Boston College product saw very limited time for over half the season, but has emerged as a consistent running threat in the last seven contests.

Last week, Green registered a career-high 178 yards on the ground, including a game-sealing 64-yard jaunt in the fourth quarter. For the year, Green has posted 887 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns.

"It brings a whole other aspect to the game," said Alexander of Green. "Before we have been able to quickly take the running game out of the game. We’ve been able to get a good rush. It’s going to make us play a little more honest, at least until we can gain control of the running game."

Pittsburgh's NFL-best run defense (85.9 yards per game) will likely make life hard for Green this week. The Steelers' talented linebacking corps could be short-handed, though, as Kendrell Bell is listed as questionable with an ankle injury.

Expect Pro Bowl OLB Joey Porter to be a force in this contest for the Steelers. Porter is tied with fellow linebacker Jason Gildon for the team lead in sacks (nine), while posting a team-high 89 tackles. The duo of Porter and Gildon is one of the best at the linebacker position in the NFL.


Maddox has been a breath of fresh air for the Steelers' offense this year, providing a consistent passing threat. Former starter Kordell Stewart was an inconsistent passer who lacked the accuracy which Maddox possesses. For the year, Maddox threw for 2,836 yards, 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He made his share of mistakes, but overall was an upgrade from "Slash" Stewart.

The UCLA product helped lead the Steelers to the fourth-ranked pass offense (239.5 yards per game) in the AFC. It has helped that he has had receiving weapons like Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle-El to utilize.

Burress, who seemed to be an afterthought in the offense when Stewart was the starter, hauled in a career-best 78 passes for 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns. The slender wideout has all the physical skills to be a force and should be able to victimize the Browns' smaller corners in this contest.

With both these teams knowing each other so well, the game will likely come down to a few big plays. Cowher thinks he understands what will make the difference in the contest.

"It's going to come down to execution," said Cowher. "There's not going to be a lot of mystery. There will be new wrinkles I'm sure on both sides of the ball from both teams but as far as matchups go, these teams know each other, the players know each other -- they know strengths and weaknesses, they know the style of play and it will come down to execution and probably specifically the team that not necessarily makes the biggest plays but the team that makes the fewest mistakes. In games like this that usually is the telling factor.

"You're in the playoffs but when you sit back and look at your first opponent and it's a divisional opponent and a team that's not only a divisional opponent but a team that's right up the road and all the history that goes back between Cleveland and's a classic."

Cleveland's pass defense, which ranked 15th in the league (204.3 yards per game), has the ability to make big plays (17 interceptions). Veteran safety Robert Griffith and third cornerback Anthony Henry have combined for seven picks on the year. Look for Griffith to get his hands on a few balls this week.

The Browns surrendered 226 yards passing to Michael Vick and the Falcons last week, but they also sacked him twice and held him to only 37 yards rushing in the game. LB Dwayne Rudd made back-to-back outstanding plays at the end of game, keeping Warrick Dunn out of the end zone.

Pittsburgh won't just drop back and throw the ball on every down, considering it has a trio of talented running backs in Jerome Bettis, Chris Fuamatu- Ma'afala and Amos Zereoue. Bettis, who missed the Ravens game because of a knee injury, should see plenty of time but it isn't clear who will start.

"We'll see how they [feel on Sunday]," said Cowher. "We'll see how Jerome is by game time, but we'll use [Bettis and Zereoue] in the running game against the Browns. [Zereoue] is running the ball very well, so I'm not going to sit in here and say how I'm going to use them, but I will say all three will be utilized."

The Steelers have been pretty effective running the ball with any of their three backs. Pittsburgh is registering 132.5 yards per contest on the ground, the fifth-highest total in the AFC.

"They have playmakers," said Davis. "You hear coaches say that all the time and it sounds like it is a silly cliche statement. If you are going to win games you have to count on guys like Amos Zereoue, Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress; your playmakers have to make plays."

Former Steeler LB Earl Holmes, who leads the Browns with 128 tackles, is looking forward to the challenge of returning to the Steel City for the playoffs.

"You know what that would mean to me," said Holmes. "Like I tell the other guys, it doesn’t matter who we are playing, we are happy to be here. Being here is one thing and winning is another. We just want to win regardless of who we are playing."

Cleveland has struggled to stop the run this year, giving up 129.9 yards per contest on the ground. LBs Holmes, Rudd and Darren Hambrick must step up and close the Steelers' running lanes this week. Former Pittsburgh DT Orpheus Roye and youngster Gerard Warren must hold their ground in the middle for the Browns as well.

The Browns have done a nice job to get to the playoffs this year, but the fun ends here. Despite losing each regular-season meeting by just a field goal to Pittsburgh, the Browns don't have the caliber team that the Steelers possess. It's tough to beat a team three times in one season, but Pittsburgh proved it was possible against Cleveland in 1994.

01/02 16:26:25 ET

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