|Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward waves to fans after a 13-9 win over the Cleveland Browns in an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012, in Cleveland. Ward became the eighth player in NFL history with 1,000 career receptions. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)|
Steelers stumble into playoffs, beat Browns 13-9
CLEVELAND—They're bruised, limping and not close to being healthy. The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't themselves.
But they are going to the playoffs.
At this point, that's all that matters.
Isaac Redman replaced injured starting running back Rashard Mendenhall and scored a touchdown, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made enough big plays on his sprained ankle and Pittsburgh hobbled into the postseason with a wind-whipped 13-9 win Sunday over Cleveland, the Steelers' 16th victory in 17 games against the Browns.
Redman scored on a 7-yard run in the third quarter for the Steelers (12-4), who finished tied with Baltimore for first in the AFC North but lost the tiebreaker because the Ravens beat them twice. Pittsburgh needed to win and hope Cincinnati could knock off the Ravens, who beat the Bengals 24-16.
But the Steelers are in the playoffs as a wild card and will face Tim Tebow and the Broncos in Denver next week.
"Now is the time to go out and play our best football," said Roethlisberger, who went 23 of 40 for 221 yards on his gimpy left ankle. "If you are a great team, you have to win on the road. We'd like to get it together, starting next week. We have not been able to put it all together yet this year, whether because of injury, weather, a lot of factors."
The Steelers may be without Mendenhall, their leading rusher.
He was hurt on the final play of the first quarter, when he went down after a 5-yard gain and immediately grabbed his right knee. Mendenhall walked slowly to the sideline, slapping hands with some teammates on his way to the bench. He didn't return.
After the game, Mendenhall left the stadium on crutches, his head hanging in disappointment.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made it sound as if Mendenhall could miss the postseason.
"It's not good, of course, when a guy goes down in open grass and is not touched by anyone," Tomlin said. `'Experience tells me that in general that's not good."
Tomlin said Mendenhall would be examined when the team gets home.
"You should anticipate that he won't be participating next week," Tomlin said.
The Steelers survived two fumbles by Redman in the second half and then held their breath on the final play when Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace floated a pass into a crowd in the back of the end zone. Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu came over the top and got his hand on the ball before rookie wide receiver Greg Little could grab it, allowing the Steelers to escape.
The Browns (4-12) lost their last six games and nine of 10 under first-year coach Pat Shurmur. Cleveland was competitive -- the Browns lost their final three games by a combined 13 points -- but wound up with one less win that last season.
"We intended to win a lot more games than that," said cornerback Joe Haden. "The only thing that kept us going is we didn't really get blown out in any games. We need to find a way to come up with a big play, come up with the big stop, the big score and the season would be totally different."
Shaun Suisham made two field goals for the Steelers, who won 12 games for the second year in a row, something they haven't done since 1978-79. They won the Super Bowl both those years.
Motivated by losing last season's Super Bowl to Green Bay, Pittsburgh opened the season by getting blown out by Baltimore. But the Steelers recovered and will now make another run at a Lombardi Trophy.
"We have a lot of veterans who know what January football is all about," said safety Ryan Clark. "Now's the time to go play it. We kind of limped in and it would have been huge to get a bye and get guys healthy. Now we have to go and play better on the road. I believe this team can win anywhere."
Phil Dawson kicked three field goals for all of Cleveland's points.
Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward had five catches and became the eighth player in NFL history to reach 1,000 career catches.
Ward grabbed a shovel pass in the fourth quarter, and although it lost three yards, it got him to the milestone. Ward and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice are the only players with 1,000 receptions and more than one Super Bowl win. Ward was embraced by his teammates when he came to the sideline after his catch, but it was one of the few things worth celebrating on a sloppy day for the Steelers, who dominated the stat sheet but couldn't put the Browns away.
"It's the happiest negative-yard catch I've ever had," Ward said. "I always try to put team ahead of personal goals. But 1,000 catches and over 12,000 yards is not bad considering I was a third-round pick."
Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison was well-behaved.
The hard-hitting Harrison, who was suspended for one game for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy on Dec. 8, had little impact on the game. He was credited with three tackles, but none of them will need to be reviewed by commissioner Roger Goodell.
"We played sub-par today, but got a win," Harrison said. "We need to step up next week and get better -- a lot better."
Without Mendenhall, the Steelers' game plan was out the window.
And with Roethlisberger slowed by his tender ankle, Pittsburgh had to make due and did enough to improve to 23-4 against Cleveland since 1999.
With the score tied 6-6 in the third, Polamalu's interception of Wallace at Cleveland's 43 set up the Steelers' go-ahead score.
On 3rd-and-2, Wallace rolled right, and feeling pressure from backup linebacker Jason Worlids, forced a pass to tight end Evan Moore that Polamalu read perfectly and picked off near the sideline.
"Troy made a great play," said Wallace, who went only 16 of 41 for 177 yards and lost all three starts as McCoy's replacement. "I probably shouldn't have thrown it."
Roethlisberger completed two passes and the Browns jumped offsides to put it at the 7 before Redman took a handoff right and weaved his way in to make it 13-6.
Notes: Roethlisberger improved to 80-33 as a starter, 34-9 against AFC North opponents and 14-1 vs. Cleveland. ... Steelers TE Heath Miller had 2 catches, giving him 336 for his career, one more than Hall of Famer Lynn Swann. ... Dawson finished 24 of 29 and has 1,155 points -- 194 behind club leader Lou Groza. Dawson is hoping to be back for a 14th season with Cleveland, which placed the franchise tag on him this year. "I gave my heart and soul to this team this year," he said. ... Browns RB Peyton Hillis left with a knee injury after gaining 30 yards on 10 carries.