It was a case of déjà vu on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
For the second straight week, an AFC North rival gained a big win in bad weather by forcing the Browns into mistakes.
Last Sunday, in the rain and wind at Paul Brown Stadium, the Cincinnati Bengals ended ended a two-game losing streak and maintained a firm hold on first place by beating Cleveland, 41-20. They returned a blocked punt for a touchdown and partially blocked another punt to set up a score.
This time, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers fighting off brutally cold conditions -- occassional snow and 20 degrees, with a wind-chill of 1 – to roll over the Browns, 27-11. They notched their third straight win and fifth in the last seven games to improve to 5-6 and stay very much alive in the wild-card playoff race. A loss, which would have dropped the Steelers to 4-7, probably would have ended their postseason hopes.
Not bad for a team that has been given up for dead twice already this year – once after starting 0-4, and then again just three weeks ago after getting crushed, 55-21, by the New England Patriots.
How big was the win over the Browns?
“It was necessary,” Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said. “You had two 4-6 teams scrapping for their lives. Today was significant.”
The Steelers won by reverting to what they’ve done so well for years, creating turnovers and then taking full advantage of them. After struggling to get any turnovers early in the season when they were losing, they forced four in all against the Browns.
There were three fumbles, one of which came when cornerback William Gay sacked
Then with 4½ minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Steelers went ahead, 27-3, and sealed the deal when Gay intercepted a
The Browns were able to move the ball somewhat otherwise, getting 367 total net yards to 302 for Pittsburgh, but those turnovers were killers.
“It was definitely nice getting turnovers,” said safety Troy Polamalu, who sacked Weeden midway through the fourth quarter, forcing a fumble that was recovered by former Ohio State defensive lineman Cameron Heyward.
Offensively, the Steelers were efficient. They had one big play – a 41-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to wide receiver Antonio Brown late in the first half to take the lead for good at 10-3 – but they spent most of their time chipping away at the Browns with runs and short passes.
“With the way the weather was, we wanted to run the ball,” Roethlisberger said. “We were run-heavy.”
In being able to move the ball on the ground – rookie Le’Veon Bell had 80 yards on 23 carries – the Steelers were able to keep the Cleveland defense honest. That, plus some good blocking by a line that struggled early in the year, allowed Roethlisberger to get through the game without being sacked, or even really pressured much.
“Special teams, offense and defense, there is not one group that is having to carry the load,” said Roethlisberger, who was 22 of 34 passing for 217 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions for a 102.2 quarterback rating. “That the Steelers’ way.”
That wasn’t the case earlier in the year when no aspect of the team was pulling its weight.
“I think when we play good team defense, our offense puts points on the board, and we are stopping the run with our seven-man boxes,” Polamalu said. “It gives us the opportunity to play at our best.
“We are playing winning football.”
And that’s all that matters.
“This is a nice accomplishment today, but there’s not a lot to time for us to admire our work,” Tomlin said.
That’s because the Steelers meet the Ravens (5-6) on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore in another game matching teams fighting to stay alive.