The score: Pittsburgh 27, Cleveland 11
The bottom line: Ben Roethlisberger did Sunday what he always does: He killed the Cleveland Browns. But in a rarity this season, Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense got plenty of help from an opportunistic, swarming defense and superior special teams. The result was a 27-11 laugher that puts Pittsburgh squarely back in the AFC Wild Card Playoff race and sets up a huge Thanksgiving night showdown with the Baltimore Ravens, something that would have seemed laughably improbable just a few weeks ago.
It was over when: There will be lots of “Are the Steelers back or are the Browns just that bad?” talk after this one, and rightfully so, and in no instance is that more important than when considering the play of one Troy Polamalu. For one day at least, he was a whirling dervish of chaotic defensive pressure again, and his second forced fumble, punching the ball out of Brandon Weeden’s hand from behind on a third-down scramble with 6:53 remaining, sealed the deal Sunday. If THAT guy shows up again Thursday, the Pittsburgh season might indeed be saved.
Play of the day: The Browns had just swung momentum with a fourth-down stop, when Big Play Bill Gay came free on a corner blitz with 7:53 left in the third quarter and separated an already woozy Jason Campbell from the ball. Will Allen’s long return set Pittsburgh up for an easy TD, but more importantly, Campbell was knocked from the game after his head bounced off the frozen Cleveland turf, which forced much-maligned Brandon Weeden into action. From that point on, Weeden struggled mightily (and was more maligned) and the game was, as the Browns radio team eloquently put it, “like a Week 4 preseason game.”
+ The potential for a sub-.500 NFL playoff team got a big boost Sunday, when the Jets and Dolphins both lost, meaning that by the end of this weekend, a 5-6 team will sit in that #6 spot (it appears that 5-6 team is the Titans). As noted previously, the 5-6 Steelers aren’t in the driver’s seat tiebreaker-wise, but they’re not in terrible shape either. It should be noted that the winner of Thursday’s Steelers-Ravens game is not out of the picture yet in the AFC North as the Bengals face a tought trip to San Diego next week and both Pittsburgh and Baltimore have a game remaining against Cincinnati.
+ What in the world has gotten into Jason Worilds? Since LaMarr Woodley’s injury, the previously underachieving linebacker has been a pass rushing, run stuffing machine. These past three games have been Worilds three best as a pro and there isn’t even debate about that. A skeptic might point out that Worilds is a free agent after the year and is turning in typical “contract year” performance. Maybe, but not a lot in Worild’s previous 50+ games in black and gold suggested he had this burst in him. Should Worilds elevated play continue, the Steelers would have a dilemma on their hands, as Woodley and Jarvis Jones obviously are locked down with long-term contracts. It’d be a good problem to have so let’s hope it becomes reality.
+ Antonio Brown did something Sunday that neither A.J Green nor Torrey Smith not Calvin Johnson did this year when he beat Joe Haden for a touchdown. Haden is headed to his first Pro Bowl and Brown has undoubtedly established himself as a Top 10 NFL receiver, vindicating Kevin Colbert’s decision to sign him and left Mike Wallace go.
+ Speaking of Wallace, this is the exact type of game (important and in cold weather) where he’d disappear in recent years. Maybe that’s part of the reason he headed to a warmer climate – where he put up some big numbers Sunday before dropping a critical pass in the Dolphins’ loss to the Panthers. + The Steelers offensive line has gone from running joke to not horrible to serviceable to (dare we say it?) solid on Sunday. Obviously, the job sseventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum has done at left tackle has been the linchpin, but every other starter, including extra tackle Mike Adams, has upped their level of play.
+ Josh Gordon set a Browns franchise record with 237 receiving yards Sunday (and yes, more than 100+ of that came after the issue was decided), one week after Calvin Johnson went for 179 in a single half, which was two weeks after three Patriots’ receivers went over 100 yards. Could it be that Torrey Smith, not Ray Rice, is the key Ravens offensive player to stop Thursday?
+ Bob from Brownstown called it.
+ Although it was unavoidable (which doesn’t matter), William Gay’s knockout hit on Campbell sure appeared to be to Campbell’s head and neck. There was no flag on the play, which might be a matter of judgment or might be because Gay is a DB and not a 270-pound defensive linemen. Again, not that it matters, but Campbell’s concussion didn’t occur on the initial hit but when his head hit the ground.
+ A few plays earlier, we saw a typically horrid spot on a 4th-and-1 run by Jon Dwyer. Mike Tomlin fired the challenge flag 30 yards on the play, likely part anger over the mistake and part frustration over knowing how hard it is to win a challenge on a spot, which the Steelers didn’t.
+ Despite the fact it cost them a chance at winning a football game earlier this season that might keep them out of the playoffs, Roethlisberger and the Steelers STILL haven’t learned their lesson on frivolous use of timeouts. In the first quarter Sunday, they tried to pull the Browns offside on a fourth-down play from just outside their own 30. Fine, no problem. But when Cleveland didn’t bite, Roethlisberger used a timeout instead of letting the play clock run out and taking a meaningless five-yard penalty before the punt. When Pittsburgh mounted a drive just before the half, they had to use a red-zone spike to stop the clock instead of getting off another red-zone play. Of course, it didn’t matter Sunday, but it has before and will again .
+ What in the wide, wide world of sports was Felix Jones doing running out of bounds on a third-down play with his team trying to drain the clock with just under five minutes left in the game? After a couple more uninspired kick returns and that bonehead play, we’d guess Jones will play his last game with Pittsburgh Thursday evening. That will give Ray Graham another 10 days to learn the offense before the Dolphins game.
In the booth:
+ We were traveling Sunday, so we were spared Solomon Wilcott’s barrage of ROT-lisbergers, but we did get to flip back and forth between the Pittsburgh and Cleveland radio broadcasts on Sirius.
+ Tunch Ilkin, who we’ve previously noted does a great job of mixing fan and insider perspectives, needs to brush up on the rules. On at least two occasions Sunday, he cited rules incorrectly, and in another instance, he discussed a rule that doesn’t exist.
+ His crash-pow style isn’t for everyone, but as a sideline reporter, Craig Wolfley provides actual reports of actual useful information from the actual sideline. Part of that, obviously, comes from prime access Wolfley gets as an employee of the team, but we’ve said it before and we’ll say again that Monday Night Football would be greatly enhanced each week by included the “hometown” announcers somehow in the broadcast.
+ One thing stuck out listening to Browns announcers Jim Donovan and Doug Dieken and that’s the reverence they hold Roethlisberger in as a football player. After seeing Weeden play for a quarter and a half, it becomes apparent why.
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Sweet tweet: “@Steelersdepot: Ben with the varsity punt.” Blogger’s note: We also saw calls for the returns of Josh Miller and Bobby Walden, which is 75 years old, on Sunday.
Next week: It’s a short turnaround for the Steelers, who travel to Baltimore for a Thanksgiving night game of AFC North Survivor. While the team that comes out on the short end of the clash between two 5-6 teams isn’t mathematically eliminated, it sure feels like a “loser leaves town” match.