Could 2013 finally be the year the punching bag punches back?
To say the once-fierce rivalry between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers has lost its luster since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 would be an understatement of epic proportions. A pathetic 5-24 record versus the Steelers during this timespan has left Browns fans pretty much unable to rebut the constant barrage of trash talk from followers of the black of the gold. A good start to quieting the Pittsburgh fan base once and for all would be for the Browns to do the seemingly impossible and sweep the Steelers for the first time since 1988.
The notion may sound crazy, but It could realistically happen in 2013.
The Browns played the Steelers tough in splitting the season series in 2012. A 20-14 victory on November 25 was highlighted by the Browns' defense forcing the Steelers to turn the ball over eight times, albeit Pittsburgh was minus quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in that game. The season-finale in Pittsburgh was not as memorable for Cleveland in a 24-10 loss, although this time the Browns were the team missing key players, with quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson both out with injuries. Regardless, Cleveland stayed within a touchdown of Pittsburgh until Roethlisberger hooked up with wide receiver Plaxico Burress for a touchdown with 3:20 left in the game.
With Pittsburgh losing five of their final seven games last fall while stumbling towards a very un-Steelers-like 8-8 record, they are a team at a crossroads entering 2013, potentially making them ripe for the picking for the up-and-coming Browns.
On the offensive side of the ball is where most of Pittsburgh's issues lie. The Browns held the Steelers' offense to just 227 yards a game in the two matchups last season, 105 yards lower than Pittsburgh's season average in 2012.
Years of wear and tear have been catching up to Roethlisberger of late, as he has missed eight games in the last three seasons. Playing behind an offensive line that has allowed 40-plus sacks in six out of the last seven seasons, don't be surprised if Roethlisberger misses more time in 2013.
The Pittsburgh running game in 2012 was lousy at best, with the Steelers averaging a paltry 96 yards per game on the ground. If rookie running back Le'Veon Bell doesn't produce the way Steelers fans are hoping he will in 2013, expect more dismal rushing numbers for Pittsburgh this season, as fellow backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman didn't overwhelm anyone with their efforts in 2012.
The loss of wide receiver Mike Wallace robs the Steelers of their most dangerous big-play threat, but returning wideouts Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders could still give the Browns' secondary fits, especially if Roethlisberger stays healthy.
Defensively, Pittsburgh led the NFL in 2012 in total defense, allowing just 275.8 yards per game. With basically the whole defense returning this year, scoring points could be tough for the Browns' retooled offense. The key for the Browns is going to be to establish Richardson early, hopefully opening up passing opportunities for Weeden and his crew of wideouts.
Overall though, the gap between these two teams entering 2013 is not nearly the gaping chasm it was a few years ago, so it is very feasible to think the Browns could shock the football world and steal a couple wins from the Steelers. Hopefully, 2013 will be the year the tables are turned and Browns fans at long last will have bragging rights over their hated rivals.
Shaun Heidrick is a Yahoo! Contributor who has followed the Cleveland Browns for 25 years.