By Mike Ashcraft
Rejoice, Steeler Nation.
We are just nine Sundays away from the start of the road to Super Bowl LII. Pittsburgh will open the 2017 campaign with a matchup against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 10.
Personally, I love that the season begins with an AFC North Division matchup. There’s always an extra buzz in the air when it comes to week 1 but playing a division rival just adds a little more importance to the day.
I know, I know. It’s not the same as playing the Baltimore Ravens or the Cincinnati Bengals. Needless to say, the matchups against the Ravens and the Bengals have often provided much more intrigue and drama over the past 18 years. Those games have felt more rivalry-like because, quite frankly, Cleveland hasn’t exactly held up its end of the competitive bargain since reentering the NFL as an expansion team in 1999. Pittsburgh has dominated the series ever since, owning a 31-6 advantage.
Is it polite to kick somebody while they’re down? No. Am I going to do it anyway by ranking Pittsburgh’s top 10 wins over Cleveland since the Browns graced us with their presence with their return to the league in ’99? Absolutely.
HONORABLE MENTION: Jan. 1, 2017 — Steelers 27, Browns 24 (OT)
Pittsburgh truly had every excuse to not win this game. The Steelers were coming off an emotional 31-27 win over the Ravens on Christmas Day that clinched the division and the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. With no way to improve their playoff position, Mike Tomlin wisely opted to rest Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and James Harrison. The Browns, on the other hand, entered week 17 with a 1-14 record and the opportunity to lessen the stench of a putrid first season under head coach Hue Jackson.
Cleveland dominated the first half with more first downs (14-5) and more total net yards (202-52) while Pittsburgh failed to convert on third down and managed just eight rushing yards. However, as the saying goes, Browns gonna Browns, and Cleveland led just 14-7 at halftime.
The Browns had a chance to take a 21-7 lead in the third quarter when Briean Boddy-Calhoun picked off Landry Jones and raced toward the end zone. Darrius Heyward-Bey made the play of the game (and the hustle play of the season) when he ran down Boddy-Calhoun and knocked the ball out of his hands at the 1-yard line, with Jones recovering the fumble in the end zone for a touchback. Pittsburgh then marched 80 yards and tied it at 14-all after a one-yard touchdown plunge by DeAngelo Williams. The Steelers took their first lead of the game with 5:21 to go when Jones hit DeMarcus Ayers for an 11-yard scoring strike, but the Browns sent the contest to overtime when George Atkinson III scored on a three-yard touchdown run with just over three minutes left.
Cleveland took a 24-21 lead on the first possession of overtime as Cody Parkey drilled a 34-yard field goal. But wait! Cue up the dramatic NFL Films music because LANDRY FREAKING JONES would not be denied! Facing a 4th-and-2 from the Cleveland 32, he found Ayers for a gain of six. The next play, he struck for a 26-yard touchdown to Cobi Hamilton to win it for the Steelers.
Did I just spend too much time writing about my honorable mention game? Absolutely. Was it a meaningless victory? Pretty much. But, hey, Landry and the second teamers produced an exciting come-from-behind win and sent Cleveland into the offseason miserable. And, for that, this game deserves a note.
No. 10: Jan. 6, 2001 — Steelers 28, Browns 7
The Steelers and the Browns were slated to officially open Heinz Field on Sept. 16, 2001. However, the events of September 11 forced the postponement of all week 2 games.
Pittsburgh entered the rescheduled week 17 contest against Cleveland as AFC Central Division champions with a record of 12-3. With Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca and Joey Porter inactive and starters such as Kordell Stewart, Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress playing sparingly, the Steelers still rolled to a 21-point win over the Browns. Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown, Troy Edwards returned a fumble 32 yards to the house for a score and Tommy Maddox connected with Bobby Shaw for a 40-yard scoring strike. The win marked Pittsburgh’s first of 16 over the Browns since Heinz Field opened.
No. 9: Sept. 9, 2007 — Steelers 34, Browns 7
The Tomlin era opened in Cleveland in week 1 in 2007. Roethlisberger threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers, Willie Parker ran for 109 yards and Pittsburgh’s defense held the Browns to just 46 rushing yards and forced four fumbles — three of which the Steelers recovered. The win gave the Steelers the lead in the all-time series with the Browns. After going 4-for-10 for 34 yards and throwing an interception, Cleveland starting quarterback Charlie Frye was benched and traded to Seattle two days later.
No. 8: Nov. 13, 2005 — Steelers 34, Browns 21
Stepping up in place of an injured Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh native Charlie Batch guided the Steelers to a win over Cleveland on Sunday Night Football. Batch finished 13-of-19 for 150 yards and ran for a score. Ward hauled in eight passes for 124 yards — including a 51-yard wide receiver reverse touchdown pass from Antwaan Randle El, a play the Steelers would use again in February to win Super Bowl XL over Seattle.
No. 7: Sept. 14, 2008 — Steelers 10, Browns 6
After finishing the 2007 season with a surprising 10-6 record and narrowly missing the playoffs, Cleveland entered the ’08 season confident it could challenge Pittsburgh for AFC North supremacy. The Browns had a chance to prove it with the nation watching on Sunday Night Football in week 2. With the two teams forced to battle 40-mile-per-hour winds in Cleveland, points were at a premium. Roethlisberger found Ward for an 11-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and Jeff Reed added a field goal with 7:58 to play in the third. Pittsburgh’s defense limited the Browns to 208 yards — including just 53 on the ground. Cleveland managed just two Phil Dawson field goals as the Steelers came away victorious.
No. 6: Dec. 24, 2005 — Steelers 41, Browns 0
The Steelers delivered the Browns a lump of coal on Christmas Eve in 2005 as Pittsburgh throttled Cleveland in a 41-0 shutout on the shores of Lake Erie. Roethlisberger passed for 226 yards and a touchdown, Parker ran for 130 yards and a score and former Brown Quincy Morgan even got into the act by hauling in a 31-yard garbage-time touchdown from Batch to rub salt in Cleveland’s wound. The highlight of the day was Harrison body slamming an inebriated Browns fan to the grass after the gentleman foolishly decided to run onto the field and into the Steelers’ defensive huddle to talk smack. Arguably the most symbolic moment of this rivalry in recent years.
No. 5: Sept. 29, 2002 — Steelers 16, Browns 13 (OT)
Sitting at 0-2 entering week 4, the Steelers were in desperate need of a win as the Browns came to Heinz Field. Cleveland broke a six-all tie to start the fourth quarter as Jamel White scored from four yards out to give the Browns a 13-6 edge. Stewart’s struggles through the first two games of the 2002 season continued. He had the Steelers driving for a score on the ensuing possession but threw an interception to Robert Griffith, which effectively ended his career as Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback. Bill Cowher turned to Maddox, his backup quarterback who had taken a journeyman’s road back to the NFL after briefly selling insurance and playing in both the XFL and Arena League before suiting back up. After Cleveland’s offense stalled on its next drive, Maddox connected with Burress for a 10-yard touchdown with 2:05 left, sending the contest to overtime. Pittsburgh won the coin toss and received the overtime kickoff, but Maddox promptly threw an interception to André Davis on the first play of the extra period, giving the Browns the football on the Steelers’ 34. Cleveland could not pick up a first down and was forced to settle for a 45-yard Dawson field goal attempt, which fell short, giving Pittsburgh new life. On the ensuing drive, Maddox completed five passes to drive the Steelers to the Cleveland six. On 2nd-and-6, Cowher sent kicker Todd Peterson out to try a 24-yard field goal to win the game. Peterson’s try was blocked by Cleveland, but John Fiala recovered the ball for the Steelers at the 13. Peterson then knocked down a 31-yard field down on third down to give Pittsburgh a wild win.
No. 4: Sept. 7, 2014 — Steelers 30, Browns 27
The Steelers scored 24 unanswered points in the first half to take a 27-3 lead into halftime of game one of the 2014 season. LeGarrette Blount ran for a seven-yard score, Roethlisberger hit Brown for a 35-yard touchdown and Bell rumbled for 38-yard touchdown. To add insult to injury, Brown even karate kicked Cleveland punter Spencer Lanning in the face on a 36-yard punt return in the second quarter (another symbolic moment in this rivalry). The Browns did not go quietly, though, stunning the Heinz Field crowd by scoring 24 unanswered to tie the game after a pair of Isaiah Crowell touchdown runs and a touchdown pass from Brian Hoyer to Travis Benjamin. The Steelers and the Browns traded four-straight punts until Pittsburgh got the ball back with 47 seconds to go. Roethlisberger found Markus Wheaton for gains of 11 and 20 yards to put the ball on the Cleveland 24, setting up Shaun Suisham for a 41-yard game winning field goal.
No. 3: Nov. 11, 2007 — Steelers 31, Browns 28
This exciting win at Heinz Field helped the Steelers clinch to the 2007 AFC North crown in their first season under the leadership of Tomlin. Pittsburgh had to rally back from a 21-6 second-quarter deficit after Derek Anderson threw three first-half touchdown passes to Kellen Winslow, Lawerence Vickers and Braylon Edwards. Roethlisberger pulled the Steelers to within five after finding Ward for a 12-yard third-quarter touchdown, then gave Pittsburgh a 24-21 lead by scrambling 30 yards for a go-ahead score in the fourth. On the ensuing kickoff, Cleveland returner Joshua Cribbs dropped the football, picked it up, dusted it off and raced 100 yards for a touchdown to put the Browns back in front, 28-24, with 11:14 to go. The Steelers got the ball back, and Roethlisberger calmly drove them 78 yards in 14 plays on a drive that covered 8:01 and ended in a two-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller to put Pittsburgh back in control. Pittsburgh’s defense forced Cleveland to three-and-out on the next drive, but the Steelers had to give the ball back to the Browns after Cleveland made Pittsburgh punt with two minutes left. Anderson found Joe Jurevicius for 16 yards and Winslow for 13 as the Browns drove to the Pittsburgh 35. Facing a 4th-and-7 with 10 seconds left, Cleveland sent Dawson on to a try a game tying 52-yard field goal, but his try came up short and the Steelers came away with a big come-from-behind win.
No. 2: Jan. 5, 2002 — Steelers 36, Browns 33 (AFC Wild Card Playoff)
The only playoff matchup between the Steelers and Browns since Cleveland’s return to the NFL was insane. The Browns sent many fair-weather Steelers fans scampering for the Heinz Field exits in the third quarter when Dennis Northcutt hauled in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Kelly Holcomb to give Cleveland a stunning 24-7 lead over Pittsburgh. But wait! As I stated earlier, Browns gonna Browns. Maddox cut Cleveland’s lead to 10 with a six-yard touchdown pass to Burress. A 24-yard Dawson field goal gave the Browns a 13-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but Maddox connected with Jerame Tuman for a three-yard scoring strike on the next drive to make it a 10-point game again. Unfortunately, Holcomb threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Andre’ Davis on Cleveland’s ensuing drive to give the Browns a 33-21 lead. Perhaps Browns were not going to Browns? Think again! Maddox and the Steelers put together a 10-play, 77-yard drive in just 2:24, culminating in a five-yard touchdown pass to Ward to make it a five-point game. At this point, the schlubs who abandoned the Steelers in the third quarter were trying to bust back into Heinz Field to witness an epic comeback. Pittsburgh’s defense forced Cleveland to punt on the next drive with 2:35 to go. Maddox calmly guided the Steelers back down the field by completing passes of 24 yards to Burress, 10 yards to Ward, 17 yards to Burress and seven yards to Ward. That set the stage for a three-yard touchdown run right up the gut by Fuamatu-Ma’afala to give the Steelers a one-point edge with 58 seconds left. Cowher opted to go for two, and the Steelers took a three-point lead when Randle El completed a two-point conversion pass to Tuman. Cleveland got the ball back at its own 24 with 50 seconds left, and Holcomb could only manage to get them to the Pittsburgh 29 as time ran out, sealing an improbable win for the Steelers. It is my hope that this game continues to cause psychological harm to Cleveland fans to this day.
No. 1: Sept. 12, 1999 — Steelers 43, Browns 0
Admittedly, it was difficult for me to rank the playoff win No. 2 on this list. However, I just had to give the No. 1 nod to the game that (re)started it all with these bitter, old AFC rivals. Sept. 12, 1999. The city of Cleveland was unbelievably hyped. The Browns were back after a three-year absence! The first game was against the rival Steelers on Sunday Night Football in a brand-new stadium! Drew Carey was in the house! All the Steelers proceeded to do was absolutely stomp the Browns on their opening night party. Richard Huntley was the star of the show, scoring three touchdowns as Pittsburgh blanked Cleveland in a 43-point shellacking. Yes, the Browns were back. But, the Steelers were also back, to dominating their turnpike rivals on a regular basis.