Yet even with nothing on the line than the chance to avoid the first losing season in nearly a decade, the Steelers found a way to beat the Browns. Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense forced four turnovers and Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown, Plaxico Burress and Leonard Pope for scores.
“I said earlier in the week that we wanted to come out and finish the year with a win and have a good feeling going into the offseason,” Roethlisberger said. “That is what we did. I’m proud of the way the guys finish.”
Cleveland’s mistakes marred an otherwise steady NFL debut third-string quarterback, Thaddeus Lewis, who completed 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The Browns outgained Pittsburgh 320-212 but were undone by Lewis’ ill-timed pass right into the hands of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and three fumbles — two in Cleveland territory.
“We just need to find a way to win, stats mean nothing,” Browns linebacker Craig Robertson said. “You have two columns, wins and losses. That’s all that matters.”
That’s all that matters to Haslam, who made a splash when he purchased the Browns earlier this season. The former Steelers minority owner wants to build Cleveland into a contender, which hasn’t been consistently competitive in two decades.
Shurmur insists the building blocks are in place and for a brief stretch this season the Browns looked as if they had turned a corner. Cleveland put together a three-game winning streak spanning late November and early December that had some doing the complicated math necessary to put the Browns in the playoffs.
The optimism died just as quickly as it arose. Cleveland came back to earth in a 38-21 whipping at the hands of the Washington Redskins two weeks ago, followed by a blowout loss in Denver. Given a chance to sweep their biggest rivals for the first time in 24 years, the Browns instead lost to the Steelers in the regular-season finale for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
The changes in Pittsburgh won’t be so widespread, but with an aging roster and salary cap issues. Nose tackle Casey Hampton, linebacker Larry Foote, offensive tackle Max Starks and wide receiver Mike Wallace are among those who will be free agents.
“You want everybody back but you know that is not what is going to happen,” Roethlisberger said.
The Steelers insisted they wanted to end a miserable December with some dignity but hardly appeared interested during most of the first half. Playing in a rare meaningless finale, Pittsburgh sputtered for long stretches in front of the smallest crowd in Heinz Field’s 12-year history. The Steelers needed more than a quarter to pick up a first down as Roethlisberger struggled to stay comfortable.