As division rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns have held a natural rivalry for some time. Of course, the preceding couple of decades have been a different era in that rivalry, with Cleveland essentially being a different team, and frankly, very rarely a good one.
We may have seen the birth of a new chapter in that rivalry last season, however, when the Browns defeated the Steelers twice in consecutive weeks—first in week 17 in order to secure their first playoff berth since 2002, and then a week later in the opening round of the playoffs, marking their first postseason victory since 1994.
That’s one of the reasons the Steelers and Browns are being viewed by many as one of the top ‘revenge’ games to look forward to this upcoming season, something discussed on NFL Network recently. Aditi Kinkhabwala had this to say about the two teams she spends the most time covering:
“This is likely Ben Roethlisberger’s swan song here. He’s always been able to take out the Browns. Will he be able to do it, or is this a changing of the guard in the AFC North and in this rivalry? I am very interested in watching what will be at least two rematches, maybe three, this coming season in what should once again be a tremendous division”.
The AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs in 2020, with the Steelers being the division winners, and the Baltimore Ravens and Browns advancing as wildcards. The Browns defeated the Steelers in the opening round, while the Ravens also won their first game, though both were eliminated a week later.
That final Steelers-Browns game was uniquely framed after a remark by wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster inadvertently provided fuel for Cleveland, a fact that he would willingly acknowledge in hindsight, though he wouldn’t take back.
In responding to a question about whether or not the Steelers had approached Cleveland differently as their fortunes have changed, following years upon years of losing records, Smith-Schuster gave a long-winded variation of Mike Tomlin’s ‘nameless, gray faces’ dialectic, concluding by saying that “the Browns is the Browns”.
What he meant was that the Browns are the team that we play for every time that we play them, just the way we do with every team we face every week; we prepare for who they are. What it was interpreted as was that the Browns are perennial losers who can’t beat us.
It was certainly taken that way by Browns players, who both before and after the game—and probably during, as well—relished the chance to co-opt that phrase and use it as a rallying cry. Obviously, it rang with more than a hint of mockery following the double-digit win.
So is this a revenge game for the Steelers? Is it revenge for the Browns after decades of little brother syndrome? Could it possibly be both at the same time? Perhaps, but at the end of the day, I think I agree that this is appointment viewing on a national level.