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Browns due to win this party



Published: Sun, November 11, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Have you heard about the block party today?

More precisely, the block, tackle, gouge and hitting party, on the lakefront in Cleveland, where the Pittsburgh Steelers, residing in first place in the AFC Central, play the Browns, who were 30 seconds away last Sunday from sharing that distinction.

Nevertheless, today's renewal of the best rivalry in the NFL has a lot riding on it. The Steelers can continue their stranglehold on first place in the division with a victory. Cleveland can tighten up the entire race with a win.

And let's not forget the bragging rights, at least until the first Sunday in January, in a valley located along the Ohio turnpike, about halfway between the two cities.

Don't expect a prediction in this space: Experience has been a cruel teacher.

Key for the Browns: Suffice it to say, the Browns can't afford to let Jerome Bettis run wild. The closer he gets to a 100-yard day will reduce significantly Cleveland's odds at winning.

And while the Browns don't have a feature back like "The Bus," their best chance of winning will ride on the right arm of quarterback Tim Couch.

And Couch's chances for success will depend on how well James Jackson carries the ball. The more yards Jackson gets, the more time Couch will have to stand in the pocket and work on the Steelers' secondary.

It's difficult to gauge just how good (or not good) these teams are. Pittsburgh is a foot away from being 6-1 ... unfortunately for them, that foot is attached to the right leg of placekicker Kris Brown.

The Browns, meanwhile, are two plays from equaling that 6-1 mark -- a touchdown in the 9-6 season-opening day loss to Seattle and last week's Hail Mary setback in Soldier Field.

But on the flip side, does anyone think the Steelers are playing as well as, say, the Oakland Raiders right now? And, is anyone else waiting for the Browns to sink back to their 1999 and 2000 ways?

Inconsistent: Who really knows for sure? They may very well be the best the Central Division has to offer this year, but just when we want to start feeling good about either of these teams, along comes the kind of game that both suffered through last weekend to jolt us all back to reality.

Here's the question that may make the difference: Can Tim Couch win the game?

There's no secret to the Steelers' attack: Run The Bus and allow Kordell Stewart to pass just enough to keep the defense honest.

The game plan for Stewart: He doesn't have to win the game for the Steelers ... they just don't want him to lose it.

The Browns' marquee player, though, is their quarterback. If he has protection and the time to look down-field he can slice apart any NFL secondary. That's a big if, though, which brings us back to Jackson's effectiveness.

There's also an X-factor in this game: The Browns' injury list is far more extensive than Pittsburgh's.

Banged up: Cleveland's defense is beat up. Sure, Courtney Brown is back, but after the game he had in Chicago don't you think he'll be the key for the Steeler offensive linemen? Keith McKenzie, a strong defensive end, is out. Linebacker Wali Rainer is doubtful and so is cornerback Corey Fuller.

Cleveland will be counting on some guys who, up to now, have been back-ups. Regardless of who wins, it should be a close score, just because of the way both teams will play it offensively.

And that part about not making a prediction -- forget about it -- I can't help myself.

Browns 20, Steelers 17.

Party on.

XRob Todor is sports editor of The Vindicator. Write him at todor@vindy.com.




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