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Angry Steelers Step All Over Inept Browns : AFC: Cleveland throws in the towel early as Pittsburgh dominates, 29-9, to advance to the championship game.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Weary after spending a week dodging the trash blowing south down the turnpike from Ohio, the Pittsburgh Steelers began their AFC second-round playoff game Saturday by throwing down the gauntlet.

A member of the Cleveland Browns promptly stepped on it.

Big mistake.

Sixty minutes later, a 29-9 victory over the Browns easily tucked away, the Steelers said they felt terribly sorry for their neighbors across the fence.

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“The only talking those guys are going to do now is to their travel agents,” said Steeler linebacker Chad Brown. “They’re done.”

A playoff game anticipated for 45 years by fans of these longtime rivals lasted all of 30 minutes.

That’s how long it took the Steelers to outscore the Browns, 24-3, outgain them by 200 yards, and spark memories of Bradshaw, Swann and Lambert before 58,185 towel-waving fans in the snow at Three Rivers Stadium.

Their next test will be the AFC championship game, against either the San Diego Chargers or Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh.

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One bit of advice for whichever team it is: Let a sleeping towel lie.

The Steelers agreed that inspiration for Saturday’s surprisingly easy victory came before the first kickoff, all because one of the Browns didn’t watch where he walked.

During pregame introductions that were aborted because the players couldn’t hear their names above the screaming crowd, rookie defensive tackle Brentson Buckner strutted around the 30-yard line waving two “Terrible Towels.” Those are the yellow cloths that fans have waved since the Steelers’ four Super Bowl seasons of the 1970s.

That championship feeling has recently returned, so Buckner decided to join in the fun. He became so full of himself, he threw one towel onto the turf and stared at the Browns’ bench.

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Earnest Byner, the Browns’ veteran running back, casually walked past and stomped on the towel.

Buckner screamed at Byner, who screamed back. Each man lunged. Teammates intervened.

Not that the incident meant anything, but Byner finished the game with 43 rushing yards, and Buckner tied for the team lead with five tackles, helping hold the Brown offense to 186 total yards.

Not that the incident meant anything, but Buckner couldn’t stop talking about it.

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“I was out there catering to my fans. . . . He had no business going over there like that,” Buckner said. “I shouted to him, ‘You’re not going to play against the towel, you’re going to play against me! It’s going to be a long day!”

How long?

“Every time I saw (Byner) in the backfield, I saw red,” Buckner said.

Byner was unavailable for comment. But, as linebacker Greg Lloyd noted after enduring several verbal shots from the Browns earlier in the week:

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“What can they say? By plane or train or bus, they’re going home. Nobody is going to listen to them now.”

Some Steelers, meanwhile, are pondering reservations of a different sort.

“Pack my golf clubs,” said cornerback Tim McKyer as he walked off the field. “I hear it’s hot in Miami.”

The Steelers are one victory away from their first Super Bowl appearance since their championship season of 1979. But at least one player has seen enough.

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“No one is going to stop them from going to the big game,” said Brown defensive lineman Michael Dean Perry, among those who allowed the Steelers 238 rushing yards.

After defeating the Browns earlier in two games decided by 10 points or less, the Steelers celebrated this first-ever playoff duel by outgaining them by 241 yards while holding the ball more than twice as long.

The Steelers scored on their first, second and third drives of the game.

They ran the ball from here to Beaver Falls, with Barry Foster gaining 100 yards in the first 31 minutes. They worked the passing game so well that middle-class quarterback Neil O’Donnell completed eight of his first nine throws and finished with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

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Meanwhile, they watched Brown receivers drop four passes and Brown quarterback Vinny Testaverde throw two interceptions . . . in the first half.

By the time the game had mercifully ended and Coach Bill Cowher had proved himself a real Steeler by enduring a Gatorade bath in the 30-degree temperature, the boundaries in this feud had been clearly drawn.

The Steelers are one of the few AFC teams in the last decade to have a legitimate chance to beat the NFC’s best.

The Browns don’t even belong in the same time zone.

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“It was like we were playing at a playoff level . . . and the Browns were almost a preseason level,” Buckner said.

At times, their domination bordered on the surreal.

Such as when Yancey Thigpen caught a nine-yard slant pass for a touchdown in the final seconds of the first half that gave the Steelers a 24-3 lead.

One minute, the Steeler receiver was standing in the middle of the end zone, clutching the ball. The next instant, in the same spot, he had dropped the ball and was twirling around a “Terrible Towel” in unison with the roaring crowd.

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Nothing had been thrown to him from the stands. There had been nothing sticking out of his skin-tight pants or jersey.

Memories of a championship era, seemingly whipped out of nowhere.

“I did pull the towel out of nowhere, I’m like a magician,” Thigpen said. “Wait till next week. You’ll see it again.”

Some of the Browns were saying that about Testaverde last week after his brilliant performance in the first-round victory over the New England Patriots.

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But even football’s inspirational hero couldn’t overcome drops by wide-open rookie Derrick Alexander on consecutive plays on the Browns’ first drive.

Testaverde, who was able to avoid most of the Steelers’ constant pressure, then took his destruction into his own hands.

Two of the final three times the Browns had the ball in the first half, Testaverde gave it back with poorly thrown balls that resulted in interceptions by Darren Perry and McKyer.

“You could see the doubt and confusion in their eyes,” McKyer said.

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Perhaps it is only fitting that by the end of the game, the Browns were only talking trash about themselves.

“A receiver couldn’t reach a ball and I would say, ‘Bad pass, man,’ ” Brown said. “That receiver would turn to me and say, ‘That’s his fifth bad pass.’ ”


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