Browns quick hits: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger beats Cleveland one last time as Baker Mayfield struggles again
PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger had the last laugh against the Browns.
Of course, he did.
With their postseason hopes dashed Sunday, the Browns suddenly had nothing to play for in their “Monday Night Football” meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers, except an opportunity to wreck what Cleveland's fiercest AFC North rival intended to be a party for Roethlisberger, its longtime starting quarterback.
Roethlisberger said last week all signs were pointing to Monday night's nationally televised game being his last at Heinz Field, and the Steelers surely wanted him to go out on top versus the Browns, a franchise he has owned for the vast majority of his career since it passed on the native of Findlay, Ohio, and Miami University product in the 2004 NFL Draft.
The Browns failed to spoil the plan, with quarterback Baker Mayfield and the passing game struggling mightily.
They fell 26-14 to the Steelers instead of eliminating Pittsburgh from playoff contention.
The Browns (7-9) were mathematically knocked out of the playoff race on Sunday. The Cincinnati Bengals won the AFC North by upsetting the Kansas City Chiefs 34-31 at Paul Brown Stadium, wiping out Cleveland's likeliest path to the postseason. Later, the Denver Broncos falling 34-13 to the Los Angeles Chargers ended the Browns' slim chances for a wild-card berth.
What Eli and Peyton Manning said:'ManningCast' not kind to the Browns on Monday night
The Steelers (8-7-1) still have flickering wild-card possibilities.
Roethlisberger improved to 25-3-1 as a starter against the Browns, including 0-1 in the playoffs.
Big Ben helped the Steelers triumph 15-10 on Oct. 31 in Cleveland, where he went 12-2-1. The Browns beat Roethlisberger in what was likely his final playoff game at Heinz Field. The Browns prevailed 48-37 on Jan. 10 in a wild-card game in Pittsburgh, capturing their first playoff win since Jan. 1, 1995. But Roethlisberger wasn't denied in his final matchup with Cleveland. He is 13-1 versus the Browns in Pittsburgh, counting the postseason matchup from nearly a year ago.
Since their rebirth in 1999, the Browns are now 9-38-1, including 1-1 in the playoffs, against the Steelers. Yes, Cleveland has played 23 seasons without reaching double-digit wins in the series, and Roethlisberger is more responsible than any other Steelers figure. He is the ultimate villain — the Darth Vader — of the expansion era.
The Steelers swept the Browns in the regular season for the 15th time since Cleveland's first season back in the NFL.
The Browns have one game left this season, but they no longer have a chance to earn back-to-back winning records for the first time since they finished above .500 in every season from 1986-89. They will host the Bengals (10-6) in the regular-season finale Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns defeated the Bengals 41-16 on Nov. 7 in Cincinnati.
The atmosphere at Heinz Field was electric for Roethlisberger's swan song, and the Terrible Towel-waving crowd went wild when he ran onto the field last during player introductions. “Cleveland sucks” chants broke out a few times.
32 things we learned from Week 17 of 2021 NFL season: Chaos breaks out, but clarity follows
The Steelers were in control from the beginning.
The Browns made things interesting late in the game when Mayfield's 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Harrison Bryant resulted in the Steelers' lead being cut to 19-14 with 1:10 remaining in the fourth quarter, but Pittsburgh recovered the ensuing onside kick.
With the Steelers needing a first down to ice the game on third-and-3, rookie running back Najee Harris broke free for a 37-yard rushing touchdown, and Pittsburgh took a 26-14 lead with 51 seconds left to play. Harris had 188 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries (6.7 average).
Roethlisberger watched Harris score, pointed to the sky and hugged teammates.
In the final minute, Steelers fans serenaded Roethlisberger by chanting, "Thank you, Ben."
Mayfield was picked off by rookie safety Tre Norwood with 10 seconds left, allowing Roethlisberger to finish the game in victory formation.
Roethlisberger went 24-of-46 passing (52.2%) for 123 yards and a touchdown with an interception for a rating of 56.3.
Browns QB Baker Mayfield has another rough outing behind offensive line
After throwing a career-high four interceptions on Christmas Day in a 24-22 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, Mayfield had another ugly performance.
Mayfield finished 16-of-38 passing (42.1%) for 185 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions for a rating of 53.1. He had five of his passes batted or deflected near the line of scrimmage — a career high, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He took nine sacks, four of which were credited to Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt.
The Steelers became the first team since the 2017 New Orleans Saints to notch at least five batted passes and five sacks in the same game, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The first half was especially rough.
Mayfield went 4-of-15 passing (26.7%) for 58 yards with an interception for a rating of 15.4 through two quarters.
Mayfield had four passes batted in the first half. Three other passes were dropped — two by starting tight end Austin Hooper and another by third-string running back D'Ernest Johnson.
Mayfield threw 10 consecutive incomplete passes in the first half, the longest streak in the NFL since Sam Darnold had the same amount in Week 7 of the 2019 season, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Mayfield threw a 20-yard pass to receiver Jarvis Landry on the offense's second play from scrimmage. He didn't complete another pass — 9 yards to Landry — until just before the two-minute warning in the second quarter.
Cleveland Browns cut deficit to 13-7 late in third quarter vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Browns flirted with being shut out for the first time since Dec. 14, 2014, when they suffered a 30-0 beating to the Bengals in Cleveland.
But Mayfield and Co. showed some life late in the third quarter.
After defensive end Jadeveon Clowney sacked Roethlisberger for an 8-yard loss on third down and forced a punt from the Pittsburgh 4, the Browns took control at the Steelers 48.
On third-and-goal, Mayfield threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to the tight end David Njoku against the coverage of cornerback Joe Haden in the right side of the end zone. The score capped a four-play, 48-yard drive and allowed the Browns to cut the Steelers' lead to 13-7 with 56 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The Browns offense stalled on its next series, and veteran Dustin Colquitt had an awful punt that traveled just 21 yards and out of bounds at the Pittsburgh 43.
Eight plays later, the Steelers extended their lead to 16-7 when Chris Boswell made a 50-yard field goal with 9:45 left to play.
The next time Colquitt punted, it was from the end zone after a sack and a series of penalties set up fourth-and-30 at the Cleveland 5. His 46-yard punt was returned 14 yards by Ray-Ray McCloud to the Browns 37.
Four plays later, Boswell made a 48-yard field goal to give the Steelers a 19-7 advantage with 5:48 left to play.
Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield throws interception, Pittsburgh Steelers score off the turnover
Mayfield had a pass batted on each of the Browns' first four possessions. On the fifth possession, he threw an interception.
On first-and-10 from the Cleveland 26, Mayfield rolled to his left and had Njoku wide open underneath, but he threw to Landry instead. Steelers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon stepped in front of Landry and picked off the pass at the Cleveland 43 with 7:03 left in the second quarter.
Ten plays later, the Steelers turned the takeaway into three points and a 10-0 advantage when Boswell made a 22-yard field goal with 3:02 left in the second quarter.
The Browns trailed by the same score at halftime. Cornerback A.J. Green filled in for Greedy Williams after he left the game for good with an injured right shoulder in the second quarter. Green intercepted a pass from Roethlisberger to end the first half.
Boswell made another field goal on the Steelers' first possession of the second half, nailing a 30-yard attempt to give them a 13-0 lead with 8:20 left in the third quarter.
Cleveland Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney helps Pittsburgh Steelers take 7-0 lead
After each team punted twice and had a turnover on downs, the Steelers ended the stalemate.
On first-and-goal, Roethlisberger and receiver Diontae Johnson connected on a slant route for a 5-yard touchdown against the coverage of cornerback Denzel Ward with 10:39 remaining in the second quarter.
But the Steelers probably would not have taken a 7-0 lead on the series if it weren't for Clowney helping them in the most bizarre way.
On third-and-10 from the Cleveland 36, Roethlisberger and Chase Claypool hooked up for 3 yards on a receiver screen. Clowney tackled Claypool and ripped off his left cleat. Then Clowney threw the shoe, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and giving the Steelers a first down at the 18. Without the flag, the Steelers would have faced fourth-and-7 at the 33. The Steelers scored three plays after Clowney's gaffe.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.