NFL: Steelers 14, Browns 3
PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger needed only one good leg for the Pittsburgh Steelers to continue their mastery of the Cleveland Browns.
The Pittsburgh quarterback played through a painful high ankle sprain in the second half to pass for 280 yards and two touchdowns, the last a 79-yard scoring strike to Antonio Brown with 2:52 remaining to help the Steelers to a 14-3 victory.
Roethlisberger went to the locker room for X-rays following a gruesome second-quarter sack but returned to start the second half, passing for 178 yards after the break.
Pittsburgh (10-3) has won eight out of its last nine to move a half-game ahead of Baltimore in the race for the AFC North title.
Colt McCoy passed for 209 yards but also threw two interceptions for the Browns (4-9), who lost for the 15th time in their last 16 meetings with the Steelers.
McCoy left briefly in the fourth quarter after taking a crashing helmet-to-helmet hit from Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison. The second-year quarterback laid motionless on the ground before making his way to the sideline.
Seneca Wallace filled in, leading Browns to the Pittsburgh 5. McCoy returned but he wasn’t the same. He was flagged for intentional grounding on his first play back to push the ball back to the Pittsburgh 16. He tried to hit Mohamed Massaquoi in the end zone on the next snap, but Pittsburgh’s William Gay easily stepped in front of it for an interception.
The Steelers took over at the 20. After a running play went nowhere, Roethlisberger found Brown open down the right sideline. The second-year wide receiver spun away from a defender, then beat Cleveland safety Mike Adams to the end zone.
Brown finished with five receptions for 151 yards and a score, though the game will be remembered not for his dazzling catch-and-run but Roethlisberger’s remarkable play.
Despite a pair of turnovers deep in Cleveland territory, the Steelers were in complete command until the game — if not Pittsburgh’s season — appeared to change midway through the second quarter.
The Steelers were leading 7-3 when Roethlisberger dropped back to past on first down at the Pittsburgh 1. He moved up in the pocket to avoid pressure when Cleveland’s Scott Paxson corralled Roethlisberger’s left leg while teammate Brian Schaefering hit the quarterback in the chest and sent him toppling over awkwardly.
The two-time Super Bowl winner was down on the Heinz Field turf for several minutes before getting up and walking slowly to the locker room.
Backup Charlie Batch was ineffective in relief, failing to complete either of his two passes while taking a sack.
Roethlisberger gamely walked back onto the sideline to start the second half, and received a huge ovation from the crowd after hobbling to the Pittsburgh huddle.
Laboring through every play — even handoffs were a chore — Roethlisberger somehow completed 8 of 12 passes in the second half.
The Steelers needed every one of them after the Browns stuffed Pittsburgh at the goal line early in the fourth quarter to stay within striking distance at 7-3.
Pittsburgh’s defense gave a little but did not break, keeping McCoy winless against AFC North opponents in his brief career. He’s now 0-8 against division rivals.
The Steelers had little trouble moving the ball through the air against the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense before Roethlisberger’s injury.
Hines Ward fumbled at the Cleveland 15 early in the second quarter to halt on Pittsburgh drive. The Steelers got it right back on Troy Polamalu’s first interception of the year. Polamalu returned the pick to the Cleveland 10.
Following a false start penalty, Roethlisberger hit Heath Miller in the flat, but the ball came tumbling out after getting hit by Cleveland safety Joe Haden to squander another opportunity.
The Browns were hardly better. McCoy appeared to score a touchdown on Cleveland’s opening possession, but the score was overturned by replay, which showed McCoy’s knee hitting the ground with the ball just short of the goal line.
The Steelers stuffed the Browns on third down and Cleveland settled for a 20-yard Phil Dawson field goal.
Roethlisberger then picked apart the Browns defense to hit Jerricho Cotchery for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
The Steelers appeared to be off to the races before Roethlisberger’s injury forced them to grind it out. They survived again behind the play of one of the league’s toughest competitors.
Roethlisberger has already played through a sprained left foot and a fractured right thumb this season. He added another chapter to his growing legacy with a gritty performance that kept the defending AFC champions’ hopes for a division title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs very much alive.
The Associated Press