A little over a year ago, I was sitting at a work meeting, when one guy from Cleveland who was a huge Indians fan looked at me and said, “Can you believe the Indians got swept in the ALDS?”
I then told this guy, and I quote: “Look, I’m a Pirates fan. I got my own problems.”
This drew a laugh from most of the room, which is why I now re-tell the joke all the time.
Anyway, as a long-suffering fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball Club, I can relate to you a bit if you’re a Browns fan who is suddenly feeling it. Your team is certainly feeling it, especially after winning three-straight games—including a bit of a butt-whipping of the Steelers on November 14. I’ve seen the quotes. I’ve seen the swagger. I’ve heard the trash-talk, not just by the Browns, but by their fans.
I get it. After years of being the laughingstock of the NFL, the Browns are actually full of talent and promise.
As a Pirates fan, I suffered through 20-straight seasons of losing. That’s an actual record for futility in American professional sports. You can Google it. It got so bad, the thought of seeing the Pirates have a winning season was a fantasy on par with hitting the lottery.
Therefore, I can certainly emphathize with what Browns fans had to endure as they watched their team win a combined one game during the 2016 and 2017 regular seasons. I can relate to all of those losing campaigns that you’ve had to watch since Cleveland re-entered the league as an expansion franchise way back in 1999.
It really does look like the Browns are back. Why? The Steelers are taking them seriously again. The Steelers are calling them rivals. Steelers fans are actually worried about the game this Sunday at Heinz Field, a contest that, in many ways, is an elimination game. No, not officially, but the loser will certainly have a huge hole to try and climb out of if it wants to qualify for the postseason this January.
That may all be true, but I’m not convinced the Browns are a serious Steelers rival again. On paper, they certainly appear to be the better team despite their 5-6 record—Cleveland sure looked that way during the vast-majority of a 21-7 win at FirstEnergy Stadium just over two weeks ago.
Pittsburgh is injury-riddled on offense and will be missing several key components—including Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster—for Sunday’s game.
If the Browns win, they will sweep the season series, something that seemed almost impossible just two years ago, when Cleveland was the de facto homecoming opponent the Steelers got to face twice annually.
When you see those names in text, it’s hard to imagine the Browns losing this game, even at Heinz Field in front of a raucous crowd that will be out for blood and eager to tell the Browns how much they still suck, especially after everything that went down between Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph during and after the first meeting.
If the Browns do, in fact, win, you, as one of their long-suffering fans, will have every right to gloat and talk trash. Believe me, as much as Steelers fans will retort with things like, “Big deal, you beat our JV squad. You beat up on us when we were missing our star players,” it will still be a painful loss to endure.
No Steelers fan wants to admit that the team their team has tormented for years has now suddenly moved ahead of it in the AFC North pecking order.
Yeah, but what if it doesn’t happen this Sunday? What if the torch doesn’t get passed in this rivalry that used to be a really big thing before the old Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens?
Back to my Pirates.
They finally broke that losing streak in 2013 and began a run where they qualified for the playoffs three-straight seasons. Unfortunately, it was as a wildcard team each time, because they could never surpass their long-time tormentors, the St. Louis Cardinals, in the standings. The Pirates had one of the most talented teams in all of baseball, and they would have been the champions of just about any other division in the Major Leagues. Sadly for the Buccos, they resided in the National League Central, same as the Cardinals.
It didn’t matter how many games the Pirates won, the Cardinals always managed to win a few more. It didn’t matter how well the Pirates did against the Cardinals in Pittsburgh, they could never seem to win those really important games in St. Louis.
The two teams even faced each other in the 2013 NLDS; Pittsburgh won two of the first three games and had a chance to close the five-game series out in Game 4 at PNC Park. Unfortunately, the Cardinals narrowly won that Monday afternoon, which meant the inevitable was near: A Cardinals victory at Busch Stadium in Game 5.
The inevitable happened.
And, to reiterate, the Pirates finished behind St. Louis in the NL Central the next two seasons. The Pirates haven’t finished ahead of the Cardinals in the standings for 20 years. If you’re a Browns fan and that sounds familiar to you, it’s because they haven't finished ahead of Pittsburgh in the AFC Central/North since Cleveland re-entered the league in ‘99.
If you’re Browns fan, how frustrating would it be to lose to the Steelers this Sunday and ultimately finish behind them in the standings once more?
Sports history is filled with this sort of thing, where little brother, no matter how boastful and talented, just can never overcome big brother, no matter how old and/or compromised he may be.
On paper, it seems foolish to suggest the Steelers can defeat Cleveland on Sunday. But in my head, it just seems so bizarre to call the Browns a serious rival.
I won’t accept it until I see it.