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Talk heats up between rivals, or not

The Browns-Steelers tussle renews with both sides making claims and denials about trash talk.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2003

PITTSBURGH -- Nothing defines a good rivalry like trash talking.

In the case of the Browns and Steelers, the perception of it is enough.

Steelers-Browns may lack the longevity of Bears-Packers, and many Cleveland fans say the real rivalry died when Art Modell fled to Baltimore with the original Browns in 1995. But geographic proximity and divisional familiarity ensures that every game between the teams holds the promise of something extra.

Today's AFC wild-card matchup, the only one of four playoff games featuring division foes, is the third meeting this season.

And it's as much about what was said last week as what was not.

Did Browns middle linebacker Earl Holmes really leave choice words on the answering machines of several former Pittsburgh teammates? What was Steelers safety Lee Flowers' real intent in saying the Browns favored today's starting quarterback, Kelly Holcomb, over usual starter Tim Couch?

And were the Steelers kidding when they accused the Browns of intentionally putting 12 men on the field to sack and rattle Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox in the teams' last meeting?

Even the trash talking has been disputed for fear it will give one club an edge.

Holmes, for example, admits leaving messages for former teammates, but when the story came out that he was "talking trash," Holmes quickly denied it.

"I'm very happy I'm going back to Pittsburgh," Holmes said. "I can't talk trash to those guys. I love those guys."

Flowers might have no love for the Browns, but his seemingly complimentary comments about Holcomb last week were interpreted as fighting words by the quarterback's teammates.

Flowers, who knows several Browns well, was accused of trying to stir things up when he said Holcomb was better and that he could tell Cleveland players and fans prefer him over the injured Couch.

"It isn't true," Browns receiver Kevin Johnson said. "(Flowers) does an excellent job of saying things to get things going, and we're keeping our mouths shut. It will be an excellent opportunity for us to go out and shut those guys down."

As for that penalty for extra defenders on Nov. 3 at Cleveland? Browns coach Butch Davis just laughed.

Said Maddox: "That's what you expect in a rivalry of this sort. Everybody's going to pull out all the stops, especially in a playoff game."

While the Steelers, winners 16-13 in overtime on Sept. 29 at home and 23-20 in Cleveland, are favored and have won five of their last six, the Browns have a few things going for them, most notably a league-best 6-2 road record.

Cleveland, in its first playoff game since returning as an expansion team in 1999, is used to pressure, having had 12 games come down to the final minute.

It is also a different team from the one that began the season 2-4.

The Browns run defense has ranked near the bottom of the league all season but it was solid Sunday in a win over the Falcons, stopping Michael Vick twice at the 1-foot line in the final 45 seconds.

Still, the Steelers have defeated the Browns in Pittsburgh in nine of the past 10 games and are 4-0 against the Browns under Davis.

They also are determined, remembering the embarrassment of last season when they made well-publicized plans to travel to the Super Bowl but lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

"Everybody's pretty hungry around here," said Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress, who joins Pro Bowl selection Hines Ward in one of the best receiving tandems in the league.

"I think there's more of a focus. It's more of a day-to-day thing for us now. Last year we were already thinking Super Bowl (and) that was one of the things that hurt us."

"We're the team that nobody's talking about," Ward said. " ... That's good. That's how we want it."

Browns at Steelers:

OF NOTE: The Browns would have had a tough time winning even with QB Tim Couch. There's little drop-off from Couch to backup Kelly Holcomb, but the Steelers defense is vastly improved and likely will give fits to anyone under center. The Steelers have a lot of weapons and a lot of ways to use them, which will be too much for the Browns defense. The only way the Steelers lose is if they beat themselves with turnovers and penalties. Still, expect it to be fairly close.

FRY'S PROMISE: Steelers 26, Browns 21.


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