I get pumped up to play the Ravens because they are good and they hit hard. I get pumped up to play the Browns because they are Cleveland. There's a difference, a deep difference. If the Ravens or Bengals get to the Super Bowl, I would root for the AFC North. If the Russians came into Cleveland to play the Browns, I would buy one of those winter hats with the ear-flaps, put on my red underwear, crack open a bottle of Stolichnaya, throw some Chicken Kiev on the grill and root like hell for the road team.
You can't blame Mike Tomlin for stating a couple weeks ago that the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is the best in the NFL. After all, he came into the area four years ago and found the two teams to be quite similar - high caliber and very hard hitting. Tomlin may not even be aware that a turnpike exists, once proudly adorned by steel mills and blue collar America, that connects two cites like no other rivalry in football. The Steelers and Ravens are certainly the "rivalry du jour," similar to the Steelers and Raiders of the 1970s. The road to the title goes through each other. To that end, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is indeed high octane for that reason alone. However, 20 years from now there is a good chance that this rivalry, similar to the Raiders, will slip into memory. Pittsburgh and Baltimore, as cities, have nothing in common other than playing in the same division.
While rivalries du jour make great theater, they cannot compare to deeper, more rooted rivalries that do not rely on two teams being good at the same moment. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns make up one such rivalry, and in my opinion, the best in the NFL. I'm not sure that Steeler Nation and even the team itself realized such when the team moseyed into Cleveland last year to play a 1-11 football team. To the Browns, that game was the Super Bowl. Cleveland fans begged their players that if they won that game, all would be forgiven. Perhaps without understanding the depth of the hatred that Cleveland has for Pittsburgh, the Steelers got slapped right out of the playoffs. Cleveland fans danced in the streets while the Browns used that springboard to win the rest of their games.
The rivalry began in 1950. I won't regale you with all the classic stories, like Jack Lambert's animosity toward his hometown team; the ambulance that stopped at a bar to pick up a six-pack for its passenger on the way to a hospital; the morning every car with Pennsylvania license plates had their tires slashed at the Cleveland Marriott; Jerry Olsavsky getting ridiculed while laying on a gurney on the way to an ambulance; or doctors claiming a "miracle" that Terry Bradshaw was not crippled after Joe Jones drove him head first into the ground - you can find them all in my book, From Black to Gold - The Pittsburgh Steelers.
Walt Kiesling was one of the worst head coaches in Steelers' history. He's the guy who cut Johnny Unitas. Kiesling had one redeeming value - he hated the Browns with unbridled passion. Before the game in Cleveland in 1956, Kiesling called every player into his office individually and told them they would be fined $250 if they didn't beat the Browns. The inspired Steelers, after leaving Lake Erie with a 24-16 upset victory, all felt $250 richer.
In Cleveland, they root for two teams - the Browns and whoever is playing Pittsburgh. If you troll on over to the Browns fan site, you will be alarmed at how much vitriol is aimed at the Steelers. While Steelers' fans slough off the Browns as being irrelevant, Browns' fans think the Steelers are the devil. That's OK. As one who has been through five decades of this rivalry, I remember when it was the other way around. So it goes both ways. Suffice it to say that unlike the du-jour Ravens or former du-jour Raiders, the Steelers and Browns have played 116 times. Unbelievably, following the 2007 season, the teams had played 110 regular-season games, with each team winning 55. Pittsburgh outscored the Browns by a single point, 2278 to 2277.
This Sunday Pittsburgh will be trying to get an inch closer to the playoffs. To Cleveland, this Sunday will be the playoffs. Have you ever noticed how much better the Browns play against the Steelers? If Josh Cribbs played all his games against Pittsburgh, he'd be the only player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before his career ended. Make no mistake, while the Steelers and Ravens are a great rivalry, the Steelers and Browns are the rivalry. The one that has withstood the test of time, the one that has connected two sister cities with the same blue collar history, and the one that does not need the artificial stimulant of equal quality to generate hate.
Every year I have three goals for the Steelers. The first goal is to beat Cleveland; the second goal is to beat Cleveland again; the third goal escapes me so it must not be as important. Oh yeah, now I remember, win the Super Bowl.