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Steelers motivated by talk of Browns being AFC North favorite

LATROBE, Pa. -- Troy Polamalu still isn't practicing because of a sore hamstring, Daniel Sepulveda is all but certain to miss the season with a knee injury and Casey Hampton's weight training isn't nearly over.

Not much of a first week of training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was it?

Then comes this: The Steelers have averaged more than 10 wins per season since Heinz Field opened in 2001, yet they keep hearing how the Cleveland Browns -- who have beaten them only twice since the 1990s -- are ready to overtake them in the AFC North.

The Browns missed the playoffs last season despite owning the same record (10-6) as the Steelers, mostly because two of those six Cleveland defeats were to Pittsburgh. The Steelers won the season opener 34-7 in Cleveland and the rematch in Pittsburgh 31-28.

No matter, the Browns are the chic pick in the division, now that they finally seem to have found a quarterback they can win with in Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn looks ready to take over if anything happens to Anderson.

Even if recent history doesn't support that conjecture, given how the Steelers haven't lost to Cleveland in nearly five years. Only three Steelers players -- Hines Ward, Deshea Townsend and Aaron Smith -- were around when they lost to Cleveland in 1999 and 2000.

No doubt the Steelers need a whole lot of convincing before they're ready to concede the Browns should win the AFC North, considering Cleveland hasn't won a division championship since 1989, when former Steelers coach Chuck Noll still was two years away from retirement.

"Any team can look good on paper. You can't really worry about that," said Hampton, who remained on the sidelines Saturday because of weight problems that have sidelined him since camp began last Sunday.

The Steelers never have much trouble getting motivated to play the Browns, despite their recent domination of them, and several players said all this Browns-are-the favorites talk adds incentive that's really not needed.

"We like being the underdog. When you're the underdog, you've got something to prove," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We're happy where we're at; we're happy with our team."

Pittsburgh goes into the season after being one-and-done during its fifth playoff appearance in seven seasons, losing to Jacksonville not only in its final regular-season home game but also in a wild-card playoff matchup. The Steelers had never lost twice at home to a team in a single season, and they appear to be deriving more incentive from that than they are from the speculation Cleveland is better than they are.

"For me, I don't want anything less than a Super Bowl," Ward said of all the who's-better chatter. "Anything less than a Super Bowl is a bad year."

Defensive end Aaron Smith laughed at the suggestion the Browns' ascension coincides with a decline in the Steelers, an aging team on defense.

"Predictions don't mean anything, until you line them up," he said.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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