It is the oldest rivalry in the AFC North and one of the nastiest in the NFL. The Steelers and the Browns played for the first time on a Saturday night in October of 1950, a 30-17 win for the Browns in Pittsburgh. Since then, they have played each other over 100 times, more than any other AFC matchup.
But the sense of rivalry between Cleveland and Pittsburgh is even older than the series itself. It is bound up in the identities of two cities that are very much alike at heart. Both Pittsburgh and Cleveland have proud histories as centers of American industry, as blue-collar towns that exalted toughness, perseverance, and hard work as the ingredients for success. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that football became the passion of fans in Pittsburgh and Cleveland alike, because these same qualities are at the heart of the game of football. And it is toughness, perseverance, and hard work that Pittsburgh and Cleveland fans love to see from their football teams-- win or lose, the Browns and the Steelers are expected to reflect their cities by their battering, grind-it-out style of play. The Browns and the Steelers are the best of enemies, mirror images of each other like the cities they represent. Put them both on one field twice a year, and you have all the makings of a classic rivalry.
It was a natural choice to put the Steelers and Browns in the same division in 1950 when the Browns joined the NFL from the competing All-America Football Conference. Even though Pittsburgh and Cleveland were usually separated by several games in the standings, they were separated by only 137 miles of turnpike on the map, and their games soon became anticipated events for fans in both cities. In a scheduling move that capitalized on the drawing power of the rivalry, the Steelers and Browns played each other on Saturday nights 12 times between 1950 and 1970, including all of the games in Cleveland from 1963 to 1970. The atmosphere of these night games could be quite raucous, with brave fans of the visiting team making the trip across the state line to cheer their team on. The game was often a mismatch, with Paul Brown's perennial championship contenders running all over the hapless Steelers. But it was always hard fought on both sides.
When the American Football League merged with the NFL in 1970, Pittsburgh and Cleveland were two of the three NFL teams that were assigned to the American Football Conference along with the AFL clubs. The move meant leaving traditional NFL foes behind, but it kept the Steelers-Browns rivalry intact as the centerpiece of the new AFC Central division. At the same time, the rivalry began to take on a new character as the Steelers shed their tradition of losing.
It's likely that no other NFL rivalry has seen so drastic a reversal of fortune as the one between the Steelers and the Browns. Cleveland dominated the Steelers in the 1950's and 60's, winning the first eight games of the series and 16 of the first 18. By 1972, Steelers fans looked with envy at the Browns' collection of 25 divisional and league championship titles, not having even a single title to claim for Pittsburgh. But under coach Chuck Noll, a former Browns player, the Steelers developed into a powerhouse, the team of the 1970's-- no longer the division's doormat, but rather the team to beat. In 1974, the year of their first Super Bowl victory, Pittsburgh won a game in Cleveland for the first time in a decade.
The Browns were not about to make it easy for the Steelers during their run of success, though. If anything, the games became even more fierce in the 1970's. Some of the most enduring memories of the rivalry's viciousness come from that era, such as the time in 1976 when Browns defensive end Joe "Turkey" Jones lifted Pittsburgh QB Terry Bradshaw off his feet and spiked him to the Cleveland turf head first, sidelining Bradshaw for two games. The games were hard-hitting and often close, but during the years of the Steel Curtain defense, Pittsburgh usually came out on top, winning 11 out of 12 against the Browns.
One of the things that has made Browns vs. Steelers such a great rivalry is the importance given to it by the fans regardless of the circumstances of the season. The overall history of the rivalry has been that when the Browns were up, the Steelers were usually down, and vice versa. But winning the Steelers-Browns game has remained a priority, whether it served as a stepping stone to the playoffs or as the lone bright spot in a disappointing season (or a way to foul up the opponent's season).
Defending home turf
It never took long for new players to come to appreciate the importance the rivalry had for the fans-- it was clear from the frenzy of the Dawg Pound in Cleveland and the blast-furnace-like intensity of games at Three Rivers that the fans cared about these games. That's likely why home field has meant so much in the Pittsburgh-Cleveland series. Wins in opposing territory have been hard to come by. The Browns beat the Steelers nine games in a row at Cleveland Municipal Stadium from 1965 to 1973, for instance. Three Rivers Stadium opened in 1970, but the Browns didn't get their first win there until 1986.
That 27-24 victory marked the beginning of a short run of renewed dominance in the rivalry for Cleveland. QB Bernie Kosar, who grew up as a Browns fan in Ohio hating the Steelers, led Cleveland to four consecutive wins in Pittsburgh. The last of these was a 51-0 embarassment of the Steelers in 1989 on opening day at Three Rivers, still the worst loss Pittsburgh has suffered in its long history in the NFL.
Under head coach Bill Cowher, the Steelers gradually took control of the rivalry back from the Browns in the 1990's, first at home, then in Cleveland. The rivalry was taken to another level of intensity in 1994 when the two teams met in the postseason for the first time ever and the Steelers completed a difficult three-game sweep of the Browns.
It has taken a long time, but things have completely reversed themselves in the rivalry since 1972, when the Steelers started to win. The Steelers have mostly had the upper hand, winning 17 AFC Central and North titles to the Browns' 6. Now, it is Browns fans who envy the Steelers' five Lombardi trophies, while the Super Bowl has so far eluded Cleveland. The Steelers, who at one point trailed the Browns by 23 games in the overall series, finally tied it at 55-55 in a Thursday night game at Heinz Field in 2006. And the animosity runs as deep as ever in both cities. The fans in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, having stuck with their teams through good times and bad, know all the more which one they prefer.
A love-hate relationship
But for all the rivalry's nastiness, there is a begrudging respect between fans of the two teams-- a recognition of the richness of their history, their no-nonsense approach to the game, and the passion of both cities' fans for football. Perhaps this was seen most clearly in 1995, when Cleveland owner Art Modell announced that he was moving the Browns to Baltimore. At a Monday Night Football game against the Browns in Pittsburgh, Steelers fans donned orange armbands to show their support for Browns fans in their attempt to keep their beloved team in Cleveland. Art Modell remains a reviled figure in Pittsburgh-- almost as much as he is in Cleveland-- because the move nearly ended one of the NFL's greatest rivalries.
After three dreary years with no team in Cleveland, the series was resumed in 1999 when Cleveland was granted an expansion team-- with the Browns name, colors, and history intact-- to replace the team they had lost. In the first game of the season, the Steelers gave Cleveland a rude welcome back to the NFL with a 43-0 romp over the new Browns in Cleveland. Later that same year, the Browns delighted their fans by pulling off a 16-15 upset of the Steelers at Three Rivers. The rivalry was back!
In truth, though, it would be a while before Browns-Steelers games carried the weight they once had for the players. Cleveland was starting from a blank slate-- and after three years without the Browns, most of the Steelers no longer thought of Cleveland as their biggest divisional rival.
But the fans will never forget, and every autumn, as the Steelers and Browns take the field again, familiarity breeds a little more contempt.