PITTSBURGH (AP) -Since the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 and renewed their nearly 60-year-old series with the close-by Pittsburgh Steelers, something has been missing.
Steelers fans aren't twirling their Terrible Towels so fervently. Cleveland's Dawg Pound hasn't been as rowdy or intimidating. The biggest hit didn't occur while the clock was running, but when Pittsburgh's James Harrison body-slammed a Browns fan two years ago.
The so-called Turnpike Rivalry has become a one-way street, and it runs directly through Pittsburgh. There has been little semblance of what has long been a competitive, nasty and always meaningful rivalry, not with the Steelers winning by scores such as 35-7, 41-0, 43-0 and 27-7.
When the Steelers beat up the Browns by winning 34-7 on Sept. 9, their eighth victory in a row against Cleveland and 14th in 15 games, it looked to be more of the same. Only it hasn't been.
Two days later, the Browns got rid of quarterback Charlie Frye, made Derek Anderson their starter and began a totally unexpected turnaround by a team coming off four consecutive last-place seasons.
Since then, the Steelers (6-2) and Browns (5-3) have had the same record, 5-2, and they'll play for first place in the AFC North on Sunday.
Believe it. The Browns do, especially after winning their last three.
``Because of where we are - and we haven't been here in several years - the people are excited about the possibilities,'' coach Romeo Crennel said. ``With that being said, we still have eight games to play. If we don't play good, then it won't be good.''
Still, this is as good as it's been in the Browns-Steelers rivalry since before the former Browns franchise moved to Baltimore in 1996.
Though they met in a January 2003 playoff game won by Pittsburgh, this is the first time since 1994 the Browns and Steelers will have winning records when they met past the midpoint of the regular season.
Coincidentally, the Browns haven't had a four-game winning streak since that 1994 season, when they lost three times to Pittsburgh, once in the playoffs.
``Their offense is high-octane now. We've got to show up,'' Steelers right tackle Willie Colon said. ``They're not the doormat of our division anymore. They're the Cleveland Browns, and it's going to be a dogfight.''
The Browns are struggling on defense, allowing a league-worst 411.8 yards per game. They've also given up 30 or more points five times, a potentially huge problem given Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes before halftime as the Steelers beat Baltimore 38-7 on Monday night.
The last five quarterbacks to oppose the Browns have thrown for 250 yards or more, and Roethlisberger had four TD passes against them in the opener.
However, this isn't the offense Pittsburgh saw that day in Cleveland, when the Browns were held to 221 yards and Frye was so bad he went from being the starter to being traded in two days.
Anderson has 17 touchdown passes, only three fewer than Roethlisberger, and Braylon Edwards has nine TD catches. Tight end Kellen Winslow averages 15.6 yards per catch.
``He (Anderson) is throwing the ball up and trusting his guys to make plays, and that's what they're doing,'' Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said.
This game should give a better indication of where the Steelers rank in the AFC hierarchy. For now, they're a rung below the Patriots (9-0) and Colts (7-1) but, if they beat Cleveland, a soft schedule may set them up to be 10-2 when they play at New England on Dec. 9.
``They're right there,'' Crennel said. ``Their record is pretty good and everybody else is behind them, other than them (the Patriots and Colts).''
The Steelers are very aware how pivotal this game could be. Win it and they'll be two games up in the division race with seven to play - and with a sweep over Cleveland. Lose and they'll be tied with the Browns, a scenario nobody could have predicted before the season.
To win, the Steelers know they must run better than they did against Baltimore, when Willie Parker, No. 2 in league rushing, was limited to 42 yards on 23 carries. Parker already has five 100-yard games, and he'll be running against a Browns defense that has allowed six 100-yard games.
``But they look totally different now,'' Colon said of the Browns. ``They're faster. They look like they're on the same page. This league is funny. One team can look horrible one week and then look like the best team on Earth the next week.''
Call it a rivalry renewed. The next challenge for the Browns is finding a way to win in Pittsburgh, where they have won only twice since 1989.
``It is the biggest game, it is the biggest rival game, it's Cleveland and it's for first place in the division,'' Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. ``It's still a heated rivalry. It's going to be in our backyard. It's going to be a classic.''

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