Ben Roethlisberger passed for 123 yards with a touchdown and an interception in likely his last start at Heinz Field, and the Pittsburgh Steelers handled the listless Cleveland Browns 26-14 on Monday night to keep their postseason hopes alive.
Pittsburgh (8-7-1) needs a win at Baltimore next week combined with a loss by Indianapolis to Jacksonville to reach the playoffs for the 12th time in Roethlisberger’s 18 seasons.
He hardly did it alone. Rookie Najee Harris ran for a career-best 188 yards and a touchdown, Chris Boswell kicked four field goals and TJ Watt sacked Baker Mayfield four times to give him 21 and a half on the season, one short of the NFL record set by Hall of Famer Michael Strahan in 2001.
Pittsburgh’s defense sacked Mayfield nine times in all as Cleveland (7-9) – which was eliminated from postseason contention on Sunday – inexplicably put the game on Mayfield’s tattered shoulders rather than feed running back Nick Chubb against the NFL’s worst rush defense.
Chubb ran 12 times for 58 yards while Mayfield threw it 37 times, completing just 16, for 185 yards with two touchdowns and two picks, hardly making a compelling case to be the team’s long-term solution at a position where instability has been the norm for decades.
Things are far different in Pittsburgh. In more ways than one.
Roethlisberger, now 39, has defined the franchise from the moment he took over for an injured Tommy Maddox as a rookie two weeks into the 2004 season.
The sellout crowd roared as Roethlisberger jogged out onto the Heinz Field turf for the 135th time as the starting quarterback and began chanting “Let’s Go Ben! Let’s Go Ben!” as he made his way out for the opening coin toss. It was an honor Roethlisberger took by himself after teammates and fellow co-captains Cam Heyward and Derek Watt let him walk to the midfield logo alone.
Roethlisberger had tears in his eyes during a postgame interview with ESPN.
“I’m just so thankful for these fans and this place. There’s no place like it,” he said.
Roethlisberger was careful to point out he had no plans to make the last two games of his 18th season ceremonial.
The tank might be running low, but it’s not empty, and he showed flashes – briefly, anyway – of the play that made him a two-time Super Bowl champion and a Hall of Famer whenever he decides it’s over.
A shoulder fake here. A step up in the pocket there. The feet don’t move as fast as they used to. His arm doesn’t deliver with the precision of the past. The field-stretching heaves have been largely replaced by dinks and dunks designed in part to protect him behind an offensive line that isn’t nearly as talented as the groups he led to the postseason with regularity.
Yet if there’s been one constant during Roethlisberger’s career, it’s been his mastery of the Browns, who famously passed over the Ohio native in favor of tight end Kellen Winslow Jr in the 2004 draft.
Roethlisberger’s victory improved his record to 26-3-1 against Cleveland and provided a small measure of revenge less than a year after he threw four interceptions in a first-round home playoff loss to the Browns last January.
That night was supposed to be the launching point for Cleveland heading into 2021. It simply hasn’t happened. Injuries and inconsistent play from Mayfield among others will force the Browns to watch the playoffs from home for the 18th time in the last 19 years.
The Steelers built a 13-0 advantage behind Roethlisberger’s 417th career touchdown pass, a five-yard flip to Diontae Johnson in the first half that marked Pittsburgh’s first first-half touchdown since before Thanksgiving.
Cleveland briefly got back into it in the third quarter when Mayfield hit David Njoku for a six-yard score, but there would be no comeback. Not with Watt bolstering his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy and a defense that’s been shoddy at best for much of the last two months summoning a menace it has lacked for long stretches.
And Harris showed he can lead the Pittsburgh offense whenever the post-Roethlisberger era begins.