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Back To the Future

Pittsburgh evoked the past in a bruising division-title clincher against Cleveland

At first glance, you would have to say it's just like old times in Pittsburgh. The city is bonkers over its AFC Central-champion Steelers, who clinched the division title and home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a gritty 17-7 win over the hated Cleveland Browns at Three Rivers Stadium on Sunday. How bonkers? Construction workers at the new Allegheny County Jail hanged Cleveland quarterback Vinny Testaverde in effigy over the weekend at the job site, and scalpers were fetching $200 for seats on the 20-yard line. When Pittsburgh linebacker Kevin Greene arrived at the Steelers' hotel Saturday night for meetings, he needed help from security guards to part the gantlet of 100 or so fans who thronged the lobby. "They were so crazy," he said later, "that if I'd high-fived them the way they wanted me to, they would have torn my fingers off."

And yet upon careful inspection, these Steelers are more like the New York Giants of the 1980s than the dominating Pittsburgh teams of the '70s. Steeler offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, who presided over the Giant offense under Bill Parcells in those days, leaned back in his office on Sunday night and mused on what the Cleveland-Pittsburgh game had reminded him of. "Washington-New York," he said. "NFC championship game, 1986. Hammer it out; don't make mistakes. That's us now."

The Steeler defense takes more chances than the Giants' did—Pittsburgh's new nickname is Blitzburgh—but Sunday's game showed that the Steelers could win with a conservative defensive plan too, a scheme necessitated by the Browns' decision to allow Testaverde to move freely out of the pocket. The Pittsburgh D played contain football, waiting for Testaverde to make mistakes, which he invariably does. You don't have to blitz to force errors if your defense is solid, and the Steelers had three takeaways against the Browns, including two interceptions of Testaverde. "People want to label us as a blitzing, trick 'em defense," said Greene, whose 14 sacks this season are the most in the league. "That's crap. We can play a team either way, conservative or blitzing. We just lay the wood to people."

That is precisely the sort of football that NFC East teams have been playing while winning six of the last eight Super Bowls. This fact is not lost on the AFC, which has finally decided that if you can't beat 'em, you can at least swipe their coaches. In recent years the four teams that are now the best in the AFC have hired NFC East alumni who bring with them a devotion to impact defense and ball-control running attacks. Pittsburgh has Erhardt. Cleveland, which is coached by former Giant defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, leads the NFL in scoring defense. At the helm of the New England Patriots is Parcells himself, who would like to run the ball but is burdened with Drew Bledsoe, the best quarterback to enter the league in the 1990s. In addition, the general manager of the AFC West-champion San Diego Chargers is Bobby Beathard, the architect of the Washington Redskin teams that won three Super Bowls, in '83, '88 and '92. Beathard has built a ground-hugging offensive team in San Diego, plus one of the biggest defensive lines in football.

Whether one of these AFC teams is good enough to beat the best of the NFC won't be determined until Jan. 29 in Miami. "All I know," Steeler coach Bill Cowher said Sunday night, "is that the road to the Super Bowl goes through Pittsburgh."

That's just the way Cowher wants it. He grew up just outside Pittsburgh, but he played linebacker and then coached for the Browns in the 1980s. "This is the essence of the NFL—two cities so closely identified with each other, two great rivals, two teams desperate to win," he said last Saturday, getting visibly pumped up by just talking about the next day's game. "This is why we're all in football. We'll always remember games like this, and it's a privilege to be a part of this rivalry."

The Steelers and the Browns had played each other 89 times in 45 seasons, but Sunday marked the first time that both teams have carried more than nine wins apiece into the game. Along with the Baltimore Colts, these two franchises moved to the AFC in 1970 and, separated by a mere 129 miles of Interstate, they have been fierce rivals ever since.

"When I played for the Browns," Cowher said, "my father would drive from Pittsburgh to watch me. He used to have a Browns bumper sticker on his car. People would sneak into the driveway and bend the aerial on his car into a P. Happened every year."

On Sunday, Three Rivers was alive with thousands of gold-colored Terrible Towels, the creation of Steeler broadcaster Myron Cope, who introduced them during the heady 1970s. "We love the Terrible Towel," says safety Gary Jones. "We feed off the power of the towel." The magic was especially potent in the first quarter against Cleveland. Either that or the Browns had a bad case of the jitters. Two Cleveland penalties on Pittsburgh's first two possessions kept Steeler drive alive. Quarterback Neil O'Donnel capped Pittsburgh's initial possession with a 40-yard touchdown strike to Yancey Thigpen. Barry Foster finished the second, blasting in from one yard out.

The two quick scores were the Browns worst fear. Comebacks are not their strong suit, nor are they Testaverde's. The 1986 Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Miami and the first pick of the '87 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Testaverde has found a new life with the Browns. After having been signed as a free agent by Cleveland in March 1993, he was proclaimed the starter when Bernie Kosar was released the following November. He will take the Browns into a wildcard playoff—his first postseason game ever—on New Year's weekend.

Yet he has been reviled in Cleveland because fans are convinced that the Browns are winning in spite of him, not because of him. In the days before the game against the Steelers, his past failings—throwing five interceptions in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State in 1987 and losing virtually every week with Tampa Bay—still seemed to weigh on him. "I've carried that baggage here to Cleveland," he said after last Thursday's practice. "That Fiesta Bowl still lingers in the back of my mind, behind the cobwebs, deep down."

The events of Sunday are not likely to help erase those negative memories. Testaverde played well in spots, but giver the Browns' two-touchdown deficit, he needed to play mistake-free football, and Testaverde is not a mistake-free quarterback. In the second quarter he moved the Browns to the Steeler 14, then tossed a pass at Eric Metcalf that Jones intercepted at the two. Early in the fourth quarter, with a second-and-two at his own 33, Testaverde dropped back, focused and aimed for Metcalf, 12 yards downfield. The problem was that Metcalf had five Steelers along as company, and the resulting interception led to a Pittsburgh insurance field goal with 10 minutes left.

The victory was especially sweet for O'Donnell, who, like Testaverde, has come in for his share of abuse. Seven days earlier, in a 14-3 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, he had heard loud choruses of "TOM-czak! TOM-czak!" calling for his backup, Mike Tomczak. As he came off the field after Sunday's win, he heard no jeers. Instead he paused for a moment to greet, of all people, Santa Claus. "Santa, thank you," O'Donnell said. "Merry Christmas. See you at the Super Bowl."

After sitting out Weeks 12 and 13 to help heal a few minor injuries, O'Donnell has become the efficient quarterback that an Erhardt offense needs: no turnovers, smooth handoffs, move the chains. Since reclaiming his starting job, O'Donnell has completed 60% of his throws, with four touchdown passes and only one interception. His numbers on Sunday—10 of 18 for 175 yards, with a touchdown and no interceptions—earned him a game ball from Cowher. "I'm giving it to my wife," said O'Donnell, who was married last May, "because she's been through hell on earth this season."

That's all in the rearview mirror now, as is the friction that plagued this team in 1993. Although defensive players still occasionally blow up at their offensive counterparts when the attack bogs down, the Steelers are a fairly harmonious lot. Their ire is now focused on their upcoming opponents—and on those who still dare to question their mettle. "Don't give me that NFC crap," Greene said, poking a reporter playfully for emphasis. "We're a great AFC defense, and we're bringing the heat. We'll represent the conference very, very well."

Just like old times.



Pittsburgh held Leroy Hoard and other Brown runners to 86 yards.



Thigpen put Pittsburgh ahead to stay with a grab over Stevon Moore for the game's first score.



On Cleveland's final play, one Steeler defender, Darren Perry, was better than two Browns.