The Browns have had some great rivalries through the years.
Their best one, with the Pittsburgh Steelers, is also one of their current rivalries and the most longstanding, dating all the way back to the Browns’ arrival in the NFL in 1950 from the All-America Football Conference.
Two other top rivalries, with the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens, also exist today. And the series with the Bengals has been around a long time, too, going all the way back to 1970 when the two clubs were paired together in the new AFC Central Division.
During the late 1960s, in the last years before the merger of the NFL and AFL, the Browns and Dallas Cowboys really went at it for supremacy of the NFL’s Eastern Conference.
Before the Cowboys rose to power, it was the games with the St. Louis Cardinals that the Browns circled on their schedules for several seasons in the mid-1960s.
From 1950 until the mid-1960s, the Browns and New York Giants had arguably the NFL’s best rivalry.
League championship games can really enhance a rivalry. The Browns and Los Angeles Rams played three times for the NFL title from 1950-55, and Cleveland and the Detroit Lions had four such contests from 1952-57.
And then in the Browns’ formative seasons in the AAFC from 1946-49, they had tight battles with the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Dons and New York Yankees -- the football team. The Browns weren’t trying to tackle Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle or anything like that.
But a very good Browns rivalry that never got its due when it was ongoing -- and still hasn’t -- is the one they had with the Houston Oilers. After the Oilers’ move to Tennessee in 1997 to become the Tennessee Titans, and the Browns’ return to the NFL in 1999 as an expansion team after a three-year absence, the rivalry wasn’t the same, but from 1970 until ’95 when they were paired together in the AFC Central, especially from the late 1970s on, Browns-Oilers were games you didn’t want to miss.
How big were their meetings? So big that in 1980, when the Kardiac Kids Browns won, 17-14, over Thanksgiving weekend at the Astrodome to get the upper hand over the Oilers as the division race headed down the stretch, 15,000 fans swarmed Hopkins International to greet the return of the team’s plane that night, effective shutting down the airport and bringing to gridlock all the arteries leading into it.
But a year before that, on Dec. 2, 1979 at Cleveland Stadium, was a classic in the series as well.
In maybe the hardest-hitting and most physical contest the two teams ever played, the Browns won the ground game -- and the game itself -- 14-7 before 69,112 frozen but well-entertained fans.
With a gametime temperature of 28 degrees and a wind-chill factor of 16, and with a light snow falling throughout the afternoon, the Mike Pruitt-led Browns rushed for 198 yards to 121 for the Oilers and Pro Football Hall of Famer Earl Campbell.
Pruitt reached the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career by running 25 times for 111 yards and a touchdown – a one-yarder in the fourth quarter that proved to be the game-winner. He also caught four passes for 67 yards and got the Browns’ other TD on a 42-yarder in the opening quarter from Brian Sipe that accounted for the first points of the game.
Campbell wasn’t far behind, though, getting 108 yards and a TD on 22 tries and also having six receptions for 34 yards.
In addition, Sipe won his battle with Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini. Sipe hit on 13-of-26 passes for 172 yards and the TD to Pruitt, which was also his longest completion of the day. He had one interception. He also scrambled five times for 42 yards, 28 of which came on the 87-yard, game-winning drive.
Pastorini, who would be replaced as Houston’s starter by the Oakland Raiders’ Ken Stabler the following year, was 16-of-31 for 133 yards and no TDs with one interception. The interception was by free safety Thom Darden, giving the Sandusky (Ohio) High School product a career total of 40 to tie Warren Lahr for the team lead. Darden finished with 45, which is still No. 1.
The Browns also got 38 yards rushing from their other players to just 13 for the Oilers. Cleo Miller, who always seemed to have his best games against Houston, complemented Pruitt -- and Sipe, for that matter -- by rushing for 32 yards on seven carries.
Even second-year tight end Ozzie Newsome got into the act, getting six yards on an end-around. Newsome had been a wide receiver in college at Alabama, and the Browns handed the ball off to him from time to time in the early part of his career to take advantage of his athleticism and speed.
The teams traded TDs in the opening quarter, Sipe throwing to Pruitt and then Campbell running 11 yards.
Nobody scored again until Pruitt’s short run in the final quarter.
And all the while, the Cleveland defense did its job, helping the Browns to have a 335-249 edge in total yards. That was no small feat. The Oilers had an explosive offense and an outstanding team overall as well, making it all the way to the AFC Championship Game the previous season.
The victory, which squared the season series with the Oilers after a loss at the Astrodome nine weeks earlier, improved the Browns to 9-5, putting them just a game behind the Oilers (10-4) with two to play as the clubs battled with Pittsburgh in the division. It set up an exciting finish to the regular season.
But really, it would be no more exciting than a lot of games in the Browns-Oilers rivalry, including the one late in 1979.
This Day in Browns History is presented by Cleveland Clinic.