Catch Joe Thomas TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. when he co-hosts "Browns Live" powered by FirstEnergy with Nathan Zegura. The 100 percent fan-focused show, which will stream on all of the Browns social platforms, will feature multiple segments with Coach Kevin Stefanski, interviews with players, film breakdowns and more.
Each game week, Joe will share his insights, memories and more in this weekly column, "Cup of Joe."
If I could go back and play two games, I'd play one at FirstEnergy Stadium in front of a packed crowd for a big game and I'd play one on the road in Pittsburgh.
My favorite road stadium to play in was Lambeau Field because of the history and I grew up cheering for the Packers but Heinz Field was always my second favorite. As an NFL player, one of the cool, unique experiences you have that hardly anyone else experiences in the world is going into a hostile environment and playing in front of 70,000 fans that hate your guts and hearing the stuff they say to you. That gives you energy. Yeah, it makes it hard on the offense to hear your line calls and hear your quarterback, but it's a cool environment to go to when you score and you hear the boos and you hear all the fans getting ticked off at their team. Those are tremendously motivating things as a player on the road team. You'd get so excited thinking about it in bed at night.
Those are just things normal people don't get to experience in other sports or life in general, standing in the tunnel in Pittsburgh and going at it with a fan back and forth. That type of stuff is a unique experience you can't buy. People talk about the greatest experiences on earth are what you can't buy, and you can't buy that.
Browns players Sunday won't get the full Heinz Field experience because of the limited number of fans who will be in attendance. That's too bad, but I'm confident this group of players has many more big games at Pittsburgh in their future.
During my career, there weren't a lot of guys who were around for more than a year or two, so the history and the rivalry wasn't built much during my 11 years, but I think last year was the start of something big. Both of these rosters have a lot of young, talented players who are going to be battling each other twice a year for potentially the next decade.
Grudge matches only build upon each other, and the anticipation builds when you're playing against a guy you're familiar with, especially if you always seem to be in high stakes battles for the AFC North crown with them.
Even though Cleveland and Pittsburgh are rivals in every sense of the word, both sides still cheer for the success of each other so that you can have these meaningful games because that's what makes a rivalry great — having meaningful games for the division lead somewhere near the middle or the end of the season. That's what we finally have.
For the large majority of my career, we were always the underdogs. We were always going into the game thinking we had to do something really special and Pittsburgh had to sleepwalk through the game in order to win. Now, the Browns and the Steelers are on equal footing. Those players are going to be going into the game thinking if we play our best game, even if Pittsburgh plays its best game, it could be a coin flip as to who wins. The Browns are finally able to match with personnel and coaching and scheme everything that Pittsburgh has.
Kevin Stefanski's coaching staff is a very even-keeled, even-tempered coaching staff. They're definitely going to be on top of players to understand this is a big game, but it doesn't mean you go and do more than you're capable of. Everyone needs to do their 1/11th of the job and don't worry about doing anyone else's job. Let the coaches do that and focus on your job. If everyone does their job, everything will be taken care of, and you'll play a good game.
Even though most of the players on the Browns' roster have minimal experience playing in Pittsburgh or playing the Steelers in general, I'm sure they've already gotten a crash course on the rivalry from their encounters with the best fans in football.
As a player, it doesn't take long being around town to realize the importance of this game to these fans. Even when I was a younger player and we weren't very good, you'd have people around town grab you at the grocery store or the bar and say, "I don't care if we go 2-14 this year, just beat the Steelers."
I remember when Eric Mangini was here in 2009, our final record was 5-11, but we beat the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger on Thursday Night Football to begin a four-game winning streak. It was the second-coldest game we played in my life and it was an ugly game. If anyone was watching that wasn't a Browns or Steelers fan, they probably turned it off. But we won and there was this overwhelming sense of pride in the city and in the team that we really accomplished something big. They were a much better team than we were, but we had slayed the giant. It was a David vs. Goliath moment.
If the Browns win Sunday, it won't be David vs. Goliath. It will be Goliath beating Goliath because these are two really good teams that are going to be playing big, important games for years to come.