Three weeks after one of the worst moments in franchise history, the Pittsburgh Steelers are back in playoff position.
The Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns 27-11 on Sunday afternoon at FirstEnergy Stadium, their third straight victory following an embarrassing blowout loss in New England that figured to kill their 2013 playoff chances.
Instead, boosted by consecutive wins over the Bills, Lions and Browns, the Steelers (5-6) will enter Thursday night’s game in Baltimore tied for the AFC’s second wild card position. Pittsburgh will be even with five other teams, including the Ravens, for that final playoff spot, but it’s quite the departure from where they were at the beginning of the month.
Sunday’s win on the southern shore of Lake Erie was more routine than last week’s dramatic rally against the Lions, as the Steelers took the lead on the opening drive and gained permanent control with 10 points in the final three minutes of the first half. With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in efficient form – 22 of 34 for 217 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions – Pittsburgh scored 24 straight points to quiet the rowdy Dawg Pound and severely damage the Browns’ postseason hopes.
Although Cleveland (4-7) outgained its AFC North rival 367-302 on the frigid afternoon, the Pittsburgh defense harassed Browns quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden with five sacks and several other hits and pressures. Weeden, who replaced an injured Campbell in the third quarter, lost a fumble and threw an interception that William Gay returned for a late touchdown.
The Steelers also recovered two other Browns fumbles, one of which by Campbell on his final play of the day midway through the third quarter. Gay forced that one and Will Allen returned it inside the Cleveland 5-yard line, where Roethlisberger connected with Emmanuel Sanders on a short scoring pass that made it 20-3 Pittsburgh.
That turn of events hurt in more ways than one for the Browns, but a sequence late in the second quarter had just as much impact on the result. A short punt from Cleveland’s Spencer Lanning gave Pittsburgh the ball near midfield in a 3-3 tie, and Antonio Brown snatched a 41-yard touchdown bomb from Roethlisberger on the second play of the ensuing drive. Brown finished with six catches for a team-high 92 receiving yards.
The Browns attempted to answer, but Steelers safety Troy Polamalu forced and recovered a fumble from running back Chris Ogbonnaya immediately after the two-minute warning. Roethlisberger marched the visitors 40 yards in eight plays before halftime, culminating in Shaun Suisham‘s 30-yard field goal.
The Steelers came out in the no-huddle offense and turned to it a few more times during the game, but running back Le’Veon Bell wasn’t forgotten; the rookie racked up 80 yards on 23 carries. His longest run of the day was a 13-yarder on the opening drive, and he got eight carries on a fourth-quarter drive that killed 7 1/2 minutes even though it didn’t produce any points.
Fourth-year Steelers defensive end Al Woods had two sacks, while Polamalu, Gay and Cameron Heyward picked up one each. Linebacker Jason Worilds penetrated the Cleveland backfield on several occasions, piling up six quarterback hits. Campbell and Weeden combined to complete 27 of 52 passes, as the Browns were forced to subordinate their running game in the second half.
Pittsburgh will try to even its record at 6-6 at 8:30 Thursday night when it travels to Baltimore for a nationally-televised rivalry matchup. The Steelers topped the Ravens 19-16 in Week 7 at Heinz Field.