PITTSBURGH -- In a wildly unpredictable NFL season filled with improbable finishes and a free-for-all dash to the playoffs, the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers hope to restore a sense of order with Sunday's wild-card game.
Certainly, each added to this surreal season -- the Browns with a series of implausible endings, starting with Dwayne Rudd's untimely helmet toss; the Steelers with Tommy Maddox's unlikely ascension from backup to Comeback Player of the Year.
So, in a season in which few gave the Browns (9-7) a chance to get this far, it only seems fitting they must oppose the Steelers (10-5-1), who have dealt with the highest of expectations since training camp began.
It was the Steelers who beat Cleveland, in January 1995, in the former Browns' last playoff game before the Art Modell-owned franchise moved to Baltimore. The Steelers were their first opponent when the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999. Now it is the Steelers who stand in their way, again in a matchup of the only AFC teams to have opposed each other more than 100 times.
Always, the Steelers.
''Cleveland and Pittsburgh, it's a classic,'' Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. ''For whatever reason, we seem to be the team that's there for all those firsts -- but I think it's appropriate. You couldn't match two better teams.''
Or, as Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said, two teams that want to beat each other so badly.
''When we beat Cleveland, it's like their whole city goes into a funk,'' Ward said. ''If they could beat us, it would make their year.''
That's where the differences start between the Browns, who won five of seven to sneak into the playoffs, and the Steelers, who have been viewed as underachievers since losing to New England in the AFC championship game a year ago.
Despite winning five of their final six, the Steelers aren't the top-seeded team they were when they coasted into last year's playoffs with a 13-3 record.
Two key defensive starters, linebacker Kendrell Bell (ankle) and cornerback Chad Scott (ankle) are injured and probably won't play. Jerome Bettis, once the offense's signature player, has a sore knee and may take a backseat role to Amos Zereoue, who has many 100-yard games (3) as fast-developing Browns rookie William Green.
What was the NFL's No. 1 defense a year ago slumped at times as the Steelers gave up 345 points, the most since they allowed 421 during a 5-11 season in 1988.
''It was a bit of a humbling year for us defensively because of the very high expectations,'' Cowher said.
Despite being the consensus pick in the AFC when the season started, the Steelers wouldn't be here if they haven't twice beaten the Browns by three points. They were 16-13 overtime winners in Pittsburgh in a game largely controlled by Cleveland, and 23-20 winners in Cleveland in a game dominated statistically by Pittsburgh.
The Browns, however, have changed dramatically in the two months since the teams last met, and not only because Green has rushed for 94 or more yards in four of his last six starts.
They responded positively to team president Carmen Policy's public reprimand following their discouraging Dec. 15 loss to Indianapolis -- ''It's time to grow up,'' he said -- by beating Baltimore and Atlanta in must-win games.
They've also rallied behind backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who took over when Tim Couch broke his leg against Atlanta. Holcomb has little experience -- only three prior NFL starts, two this season -- but owns a strong arm and his teammates' confidence.
''I know some of their players, and they tell me the guys really like Holcomb,'' Steelers defensive lineman Casey Hampton said. ''They think Holcomb is just as good as (Couch).''
''He's a smart kid, and he'll be prepared,'' Browns coach Butch Davis said.
The Browns are comfortable on the road, going 6-2, but haven't won a road playoff game since beating Dallas in 1969. The Steelers are 5-2-1 at Heinz Field.
Browns defensive lineman Gerard Warren is making the bold prediction that Sunday's winner will go on to win the Super Bowl, even though only Pittsburgh has a chance to play again at home.
''I know we're determined and the Steelers are hungry. It's going to be a high-intensity, high-energy game,'' he said.
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