Sunday, January 01, 2012

Cleveland Browns hoping for new success on New Year's vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

By Mary Kay Cabot, The Plain Dealer
January 1, 2012

The Browns have promised to bring plenty of energy to playing the Steelers and Rashard Mendenhall Sunday afternoon in the season finale. "This is our last game and we have nothing to lose," says defensive end Jabaal Sheard. "Everybody here wants to go out with a win." (John Kuntz, The Plain Dealer)

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Browns New Year's resolutions: Win a division game, beat the Steelers for only the second time since 2003, and help prevent Pittsburgh from winning the AFC North Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

"This is our Super Bowl, against the Steelers, right here, right now," said receiver Josh Cribbs. "This is our playoffs."

If the 4-11 Browns can knock off the 11-4 Steelers, they'll avoid their second sweep by the division since 1999. The only other time it happened was in 2006 under Romeo Crennel -- en route to a 4-12 season.

"It would be meaningful most to our fans," said Cribbs, who had a 84-yard punt return for a touchdown in Baltimore last weekend. "We have to instill within the guys how important it is and keep them from checking out. If I see a guy thinking about other plans, I'm like, 'hey, man, we're going to get this win first.' Then we're set for the whole off-season."

Team leaders Cribbs and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson -- both Pro Bowl alternates -- have spent much of the week impressing upon the younger players the importance of finishing strong.

"You want to leave a lasting impression for the guys in the locker room as well as the coaches," said Jackson, the Browns' Player of the Year. "We want to come out and play our best game, so we can go out and have something to talk about in the off-season. Whether a guy played well or not, the last impression stretches a mile long."

Say all you want about the close games the Browns have played in the division, they mean nothing unless you win, Jackson said.

"We haven't gained the respect that you want," he said. "We've lost the games. You get respect by winning and we've got to win our division first if we want to have a chance to do anything next year. We haven't won a division game all year. It would be a major boost for the young guys to understand that we can compete in this division and we can win a close game. The first and the last one are very important."

Cribbs refuses to believe the stadium will be filled with more Steelers fans and their terrible towels.

"A lot of people will want to say they're not going to the game, but Browns fans will be there," he said. "Our fans always support us, rain, snow, sleet. I don't believe the hype about our fans trying to give away tickets. Our fans will be there in record numbers. We just got to do our part."

The Browns would take great satisfaction in preventing the Steelers from winning the AFC North. A Steelers loss would mean a Ravens' division title by virtue of their sweep of the Steelers this season, regardless of Baltimore's game at Cincinnati. If both teams win, the Ravens earn a first-round bye, and the Steelers earn a wild-card berth. If the Bengals (9-6) win, they can also secure a wildcard spot.

"I know if we can get a win and kind of stumble [the Steelers] a bit, it would mean a lot," said Jackson.

The game marks the third straight start for Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace, who's confident no one has quit.

"It's because we love our group," said Wallace. "But at the end of the day we're all men and we've all got to look across at the other guy and say 'hey, I didn't quit on you.' Your peers are the ones that look at you everyday and if they feel like you've quit on them, it's kind of tough to get that back as a player."

More importantly, Wallace said, is that he's seen guys like receiver Greg Little and running back Peyton Hillis getting better over the past few weeks. "That's the biggest thing, is that there's improvement, and we can carry that over into next season," he said.

Hillis rushed for 112 yards against the Ravens last week, averaging about 105 yards over his past two games. He hasn't fared well against the Steelers in his three outings against them, mostly because he hasn't been healthy. His high game against Pittsburgh was 41 yards rushing and 49 yards receiving on Oct. 17, 2010.

"I've never backed down from a challenge," said Hillis. "The Steelers are a great defense. No doubt about it. But if we do our job up front on offense we can run the ball on anybody. I'm very confident, and I'm a lot healthier than I was a few weeks ago. When you're feeling healthy and confident, a lot of good things can happen."

The Browns have repeatedly said they won't try to retaliate against Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, who drilled Colt McCoy in the facemask with his helmet on Dec. 8 and ended his season with a concussion.

"As long as [Browns fans] take the fine, I'm happy to go in and do whatever it is they'd like me to do," joked Little. "The personal vendettas, we're not about. We're about winning the game and if my assignment is to go block 92, I'm going to do what I'm supposed to do, but I'm not going to go and take a cheap shot on him."

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is expected to start despite still hobbling on the high ankle sprain courtesy of Browns defensive lineman Scott Paxson on Dec. 8.

"This is our last game and we have nothing to lose," said defensive end Jabaal Sheard. "Everybody here wants to go out with a win. We want to start the new year right. I think there will be a lot of intensity out there."

On Twitter: @marykaycabot

Tony Grossi’s Four Things for Steelers-Browns

1. Another day at beach for Steelers? James Harrison is the bully who kicks sand in the faces of the Browns. He’s taken out three prime offensive players in the last three meetings, two on illegal hits to the head. The Browns haven’t laid a finger on Harrison after any of those hits, haven’t really blocked him. They say the best retaliation is beating his team.

2. Big Ben: Ben Roethlisberger was cruising along on an 8-for-9, 102-yard, one-TD night on Dec. 8 before Scott Paxson and Brian Schaefering combined on the hit that resulted in a high ankle sprain. Roethlisberger has hobbled through six quarters of work with the injury, completing 33 of 57 passes for 508 yards with one touchdown, four interceptions and a passer rating of 64.1. The lone touchdown came when Joe Haden slipped and fell. Other than that gift at the end of the Steelers’ 14-3 win that night, Roethlisberger has produced only one field goal since his injury.

3. Ugly numbers: For the record, the Steelers have won 15 of the last 16 meetings, 21 of the last 23, and 22 of 26 overall since the Browns returned as an expansion franchise in 1999.

4. Last chance for ... A Browns win in division games. Only other time they went 0-6 was 2006 ... A Joe Haden interception. At least four of his 19 pass breakups were dropped interceptions ... A Phil Dawson field goal of 50 or more yards. His seven (on eight tries) are one off the NFL single-season record ... A Josh Cribbs kickoff return touchdown. His three in his career against the Steelers are tied for the most against a single opponent.

Plain Dealer predictions

Mary Kay Cabot (12-3) / Steelers 21, Browns 13: Will the Browns send a message to Harrison?

Tony Grossi (9-6) / Steelers 23, Browns 20: What inexplicable snafu awaits the Browns today?

Bill Livingston (11-4) / Browns 17, Steelers 16: Nothing but a desperate attempt to tie Mary Kay Cabot for first place.

Terry Pluto (11-4) / Browns 16, Steelers 14: Don’t ask me why, other than crazy things can happen in the last game of the season.

Bud Shaw (11-4) / Steelers 16, Browns 13: Margin for error too slim when you’re one James Harrison hit away from Thaddeus Lewis.

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