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Original Issue

Throwdown in Browns Town

In a suddenly wide-open AFC, Pittsburgh-Cleveland takes on added urgency

HAVING TROUBLE finding an AFC Super Bowl team after last weekend's wreckage? Join the mob. San Diego, everybody's smart pick, got nipped at home by Carolina. Indianapolis, which just about has a lock on the playoffs every year, was beaten in its new house by Chicago. The dark-horse Jaguars were done in by the Titans. The Browns, whose fans think this is the year everything comes together, were humiliated at home by the Cowboys. The Patriots won but paid a terrible price: quarterback Tom Brady, out with a serious knee injury. And now that the king is wounded, everybody is gathering around, like greedy relatives at the reading of the will. So what if we lost? At least one team is in worse shape.

One proud old warrior is still holding on nobly, however. Pittsburgh, hardly a sexy pick to reach the Super Bowl, went about its business and handed Houston a thorough whipping in a game that was decided very early. This Sunday the Steelers go to Cleveland for a game that takes on almost Super Bowl--like proportions for the Browns.

It's a very bitter rivalry if you're a Cleveland fan. Pittsburgh has won the last nine games in the series. Even more humiliating, the worst whippings have occurred in front of the Cleveland fans. The Steelers beat the Browns 41--0 in Cleveland three years ago, in a game that saw linebacker James Harrison body-slam a Browns fan who ran onto the field. Browns Stadium was the site of the season opener last year, and again the fans watched a blowout, this time 34--7. That one was memorable because it marked the demise of Charlie Frye and the rise of Derek Anderson as Cleveland's quarterback. The next time the teams met, in Pittsburgh in November, the Browns blew a 21--9 halftime lead, but at least the score was a respectable 31--28.

The book on the Browns this year was that they would challenge Pittsburgh in the AFC North. And it's a book that will close pretty fast if they put up a show anything like the one they did last week. Their pass rush was a joke. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo stood back in the pocket and dialed up whatever receiver he owed a favor to. The Cowboys smacked Cleveland with their running game, and on defense they kept Anderson from getting comfortable in the pocket.

Maybe now, with the stakes higher, the Browns will show a little life. Anderson is a streaky passer. He can get hot and worry anybody, but he can look awfully bad too, if his protection breaks down. Cleveland's best downfield receiver, Braylon Edwards, dropped four passes against Dallas. That's as good a way as any to blow it against a solid team. And the Steelers are solid.

I see a lot of early emotion by the Browns, and then the game settling into a slugfest in which they get outslugged. Pittsburgh's good at these. Good enough to make it 10 straight.

Dr. Z picks the weekend games, Thursday on



SLIPPERY SLOPE If Edwards can't hang on, the Browns' hopes tumble.