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NFL PLAYOFFS : Rivals Are Still Roaring : AFC: Brash Browns refuse to accept two earlier losses, so Steelers hope playoff victory will do the job.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A smirk on its face and a bright yellow towel in its hand, history awaits the Cleveland Browns today when they play at Three Rivers Stadium.

In a second-round AFC playoff game at 9:30 a.m. PST, the Browns will be dealing with more than just longtime neighborhood rival Pittsburgh.

There’s the sticky matter of memories.

This season, the Browns lost two games to the Steelers in the same year for the first time since 1981.

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The Browns have lost 21 of 25 games at Three Rivers Stadium.

They are one of nine franchises never to appear in a Super Bowl and have won no league championships in 30 years.

The Steelers await with the AFC’s best record, top-ranked defense and 60,808 towel-waving veterans of Franco’s Italian Army.

The facts are plain. The Browns will be buried not only under a predicted heavy snowfall but a whole heap of black and gold and Greene.

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Or will they?

“That’s a lie,” said Brown tackle Tony Jones, whose defiant tone was echoed in the Browns’ complex this week. “For one thing, we’re a lot better team than they are.”

And for another thing . . .

“My prediction is sooner or later, that style of defense is going to catch up to them,” Brown defensive end Rob Burnett said of the Steelers’ renowned blitzing unit. “It’s going to be their end.”

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And while they’re at it . . .

“We owe them,” Burnett said. “We will go down there and say hello to those guys.”

The Browns have even accused the Steelers of poor manners for not shaking hands after the Steelers’ 17-7 victory last month.

The Steelers were busy running around the field celebrating the clinching of the Central Division championship at the time.

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The Steelers say they are sick of the Browns and their big mouths.

“Maybe we’ll shut ‘em up this time,” Steeler safety Darren Perry said. “Some of the things they’ve been saying, you wonder if they’re looking at the same tapes as us.”

Added cornerback Rod Woodson: “Even when we beat them the last two times, they still walked off the field thinking they should have beaten us. I still don’t know if we have the respect from the Browns yet. If you can’t get it in two previous meetings, I guess you just have to take it in the playoffs.”

Steeler linebacker Greg Lloyd said the team doesn’t need to respond to such boasts.

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They’ll leave that to the Steeler fans, who in their game last month created what Browns owner Art Modell said was the most “boisterous” environment in this rivalry’s 26-year history.

For the first time in recent NFL memory, it was a sold-out regular-season game with zero no-shows.

“We get it bad when we go up there; they are going to get it bad when they come down here,” Lloyd said. “This will be an all-out war.”

The Steelers have weapons everywhere.

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Their league-leading sack scheme is led by Lloyd and Kevin Greene, the NFL’s two top outside linebackers. Their secondary has a player, Woodson, who was recently voted the NFL’s best-ever at his position though he is not yet 30.

Running through holes created by a splendid offensive line is not one but two bruising backs--Barry Foster and Bam Morris.

Helped by fullback John L. Williams, they led the team to a 136.2-yards-per-game rushing average. It was the first time the Steelers have led the league in rushing since there were uniforms that read “Harris” and “Bleier.”

That Morris and Foster alternate does not upset former Pro Bowler Foster, he said, as long as he can receive all the carries in the Super Bowl.

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Cowher agreed to the deal.

Yes, the Steelers are thinking that far ahead.

Even their maligned quarterback, Neil O’Donnell, set a club record for fewest interceptions with nine. And in the late-season emergence of rookie receiver Charles Johnson, O’Donnell may finally have a target.

How can the Browns possibly counter?

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They can’t believe anybody who witnessed their 20-13 first-round playoff victory over the New England Patriots would ask.

“Right now, we feel unbeatable,” Brown linebacker Pepper Johnson said.

Here’s what they brought with them today on their 130-mile trip south:

--The AFC’s second-ranked defense.

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This unit, not as flashy as Pittsburgh’s, allowed but two 100-yard rushers, one 100-yard receiver and one 300-yard passer.

Eric Turner is the league’s best safety. Johnson, who lectures teammates before games and dances around the field during them, ranks with Lloyd on the inspiration scale.

Against the Patriots, this defense held the league’s fourth-ranked offense to 104 yards in the second half. Now, the defense can’t wait to line up against O’Donnell, who is winless in two playoff starts.

--A hot quarterback.

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Vinny Testaverde threw six interceptions and accepted much of the blame while leading his team to just 17 total points in the Browns’ previous two losses against the Steelers. But between then and now, somehow he has gotten a clue.

In his last four games, he has led the Browns to victories over the Dallas Cowboys and then the Patriots in his first playoff game. While watching him on television Sunday, the Steelers knew this was a changed man when he threw 30 passes--many on the run--without an interception.

“He was a totally different player,” Steeler defensive end Ray Seals said. “He’s more confident now, more confident than he’s ever been before.”

--Knowledge of a Steeler defensive scheme largely based on surprise.

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Even though the Raiders beat the Denver Broncos three times in one season in 1993-94, at least one longtime coach thinks it will be difficult for the Steelers to repeat that feat.

“Because both of their games were big games for Pittsburgh, they didn’t hold anything back . . . that means Cleveland has probably seen everything they’ve got,” said George Henshaw, offensive coordinator for the New York Giants, who lost to the Steelers but upset the Browns.

“So,” Henshaw added, “the element of surprise is not there. Testaverde should be familiar with most of what he sees. That will take away the Steelers’ advantage.”

The Browns act as if they already know that.

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The Steelers say they’ll never believe it.

The only thing certain is that somebody will be right. And somebody else will have to spend the next six months hearing about it.


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