CLEVELAND – Separated by roughly 130 miles and six Super Bowl titles, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have a hostile, historic rivalry resuscitated from being heavily one-sided to much more competitive the past few years.
The hatred has never waned.
“It's a big game. It's Browns vs. Steelers,” said Cleveland running back and native Kareem Hunt, who is about to get his first on-field taste of the long-running football feud. “I've been watching this my whole life.”
The Steelers and Browns are getting together again tonight for the 135th time, renewing their deep disdain for each other in front of a national TV audience in what have been unexpected seasons for both teams.
The Steelers have salvaged theirs.
Cleveland has work to do.
Their margin for error expunged by a flurry of penalties, turnovers, questionable plays calls by rookie coach Freddie Kitchens in several disappointing early season losses, the Browns (3-6) will try to keep their faint playoff hopes flickering against the Steelers (5-4).
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, leaned on its championship pedigree to regroup after moving on from Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and then losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2 to injury. Led by a ball-hawking defense, the Steelers have wiped out a 1-4 start.
“We are still scratching and clawing to make this thing happen and to keep winning games and keep stacking victories and let the chips fall where they may,” said second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, who has settled in after replacing Big Ben. “We are not in the position where we can take anyone lightly.”
Talent and commercial endorsements haven't been nearly enough in Cleveland. The NFL's most publicized team in the preseason has failed to live up to expectations.
However, the Browns, who stopped a four-game skid with their first home win of the season Sunday over Buffalo, have a soft schedule ahead and haven't given up on ending the league's longest playoff drought going back to 2002.
Another loss would all but end their chances.
The key for Cleveland will be ball security. The Steelers are second in the league with 26 takeaways, the most for a Pittsburgh team through nine games since 1987.
“They are making a lot of plays right now,” said Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who hasn't thrown a pick in two games after having a league-high 12 through seven.
During their winning streak, the Steelers have forced 14 turnovers, with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick returning two for touchdowns. Fitzpatrick came over in a trade from Miami and already has five interceptions and a fumble recovery in seven games.
Browns guard Joel Bitonio isn't surprised by the Steelers' surge. It's who they are.
“I know a lot of people probably tried to write 'em off at the beginning of the year when they lost all those guys and had the injury to Ben,” he said. “But they fight. ... They rallied around their defense and their culture and said, 'Hey, we're not giving up on this season.' It's really been impressive to see.”
Pittsburgh at Cleveland
Time: 8:20 p.m. (Fox/NFL Network)
Records: Steelers 5-4; Browns 3-6
The skinny: Pittsburgh's defense, led by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, is putting together quite a nice string of games, capped off by last week's silencing of the Rams. The Steelers are second in the league with 26 takeaways spurring their run of four straight wins. Cleveland showed some grit in beating a tough Bills team in a back-and-forth game to snap a 4-game losing streak. Can they show that same grit against their biggest rival?
Prediction: Steelers 23-17
Last week: 2-11; Season 83-64-1
– Mark Jaworski, The Journal Gazette