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HOLLAND: Browns seek more than just a playoff win

Browns fans vividly remember the last time Cleveland visited the Pittsburgh Steelers for a playoff game, at least the ones who are old enough.

It was January of 2003, and the Browns were playing in their first postseason since returning to the NFL in 1999. The Kelly Holcomb-quarterbacked Browns gave the Steelers all they could handle, taking a 12-point lead with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Steelers head coach Bill Cowher watched as quarterback Tommy Maddox rallied his team to a 36-33 victory, with running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala rushing for the game-winning touchdown with 54 seconds left.

As tough as that loss was to swallow, Browns fans were left with hope that the tide was turning after three straight losing seasons prior to 2002.

That wasn’t the case, however, as Cleveland went on to endure 16 losing seasons over the next 17 years, including an 0-16 season in 2017.

Less than two years after the heart-breaking playoff loss to Pittsburgh, the Browns passed on a young quarterback out of Miami (Ohio) by the name of Ben Roethlisberger in the NFL Draft. The Steelers, with the 11th pick, selected the man nicknamed “Big Ben,” triggering a long run of Steelers dominance over the Browns.

Since Roethlisberger entered the league in 2004, the Steelers are 29-4-1 against the Browns. During that time, the Browns have visited Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field 17 times — the Steelers won all 17 of those games.

If you ask anyone associated with the 2020 Cleveland Browns, all of that is in the past.

“I understand the statistics are out there, but really not too concerned with the past,” said Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski in a press conference.

“We have a lot of guys here, myself included, that can’t really speak to some of those stats you just named.”

Stefanski has good reason not to concern himself with Cleveland’s brutal recent past. In his first year guiding the team, the 38-year-old coach led the Browns to an 11-5 record, their first winning season since 2007, and their first playoff berth since that day in January of 2003. He’s a candidate for NFL Coach of the Year, taking over a team used to failure and completely revamping the standards and the culture.

It was a victory Sunday over those pesky Steelers that clinched a playoff spot for the Browns, earning them the No. 6 seed in the AFC. Up next — wouldn’t you know it — is the Steelers again.

Pittsburgh finished 12-4 after resting their starters in Week 17, earning the No. 3 seed and the right to host the Browns this Sunday night.

The Browns excorcised a lot of demons this season simply by winning. The future, like it did following that 2003 playoff loss in Pittsburgh, looks bright. Quarterback Baker Mayfield appears to have figured things out. Running back Nick Chubb and defensive end Myles Garrett are two of the league’s best. There’s good players up and down the roster, a good offensive scheme and, finally in Cleveland, competence coming from the coaching staff and the front office.

The Browns learned earlier this week they’ll be without Stefanski and a handful of assistant coaches and players for the playoff game due to COVID-19. That will make an already big challenge even bigger.

The Steelers are tough, well-coached and playoff-tested. There’s a good chance the shorthanded Browns will go into Pittsburgh and lose Sunday.

There’s a chance they might win, though, too.

A playoff win in Pittsburgh, the place that has tormented this franchise for so many years, would be the ultimate proof that things really are changing in Cleveland. Maybe that would trigger a 17-year run of Browns dominance over the Steelers.

Or, on the other hand, the Browns could lose, and that loss could fester through the offseason and lead to an eventual dismantling of the coaching staff and front office and, yet again, another rebuild. After all, we’ve seen that before with the Browns — since 1999, six Cleveland head coaches have been fired following a loss to the Steelers.

That’s just another ugly Browns-Steelers statistic that will continue to be thrown in Cleveland’s face until it proves it can hang with its longtime rival, year-in and year-out.

The Browns can take a huge step toward doing that this Sunday.

Jordan Holland is an associate sports editor for The Marietta Times. He can be reached at jholland@mariettatimes.com.

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