CLEVELAND — Something popped up here that has not been spotted for quite some time, like a species once thought extinct rising from frigid Lake Erie.
The words “playoffs” and “Steelers” again appear in the same room, like a reunion of old friends who haven’t seen each other in ages.
Indeed, their third consecutive victory, 27-11, against the Cleveland Browns Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, boosted their record to 5-6, and smack in the hunt for an AFC wild-card playoff spot. Of course, there are five games to go, with a mean one coming up quickly, Thursday night in Baltimore.
After an 0-4 start, it appeared their season would be irrelevant by Halloween but the Steelers have turned their Thanksgiving game into something worth savoring.
“Right now we’re playing playoff football,” said receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who caught one of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s two touchdown passes.
That 4-yard score in the third quarter came on the first play after Will Allen returned a fumble by Browns quarterback Jason Campbell 49 yards to the Browns 4. Campbell fumbled when cornerback William Gay blitzed, sacked and knocked him from the game with a head injury.
Gay later returned an interception 21 yards for the Steelers’ final touchdown.
Those were two of four turnovers their defense forced while their offense lost none, quite a reversal from what they were doing in the first half of the season.
“When we started out 0-4, we were turning the football over and the defense wasn’t creating turnovers,” Sanders said. “And you saw the outcome of that. Right now we’re playing really good ball. We’re taking care of the ball and the defense is creating turnovers and that’s a formula for winning.”
The Steelers scored 17 points off of turnovers and stretched their two-game total to seven forced turnovers to none of their own. They also kept Roethlisberger from being sacked the entire game and their once-maligned offensive line has allowed just one sack in the past two games.
“We didn’t keep him clean enough,” tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “He took a couple of hits. We can’t allow that.”
Just as the line was not satisfied, neither were they content to be back in the playoff hunt after such a terrible start.
“We are playing winning football,” said Troy Polamalu, who forced a fumble that he recovered. “What that means Thursday, we’ll see.”
The Steelers took control of this one in the final 2½ minutes of the first half when they scored twice, and they never let the Browns (4-7) back in it.
Roethlisberger again opened in the no-huddle offense and relied on it heavily for the second consecutive game. They scored on the game’s first series, too, when Shaun Suisham kicked a 47-yard field goal.
Billy Cundiff countered with a 49-yarder for Cleveland on its first series and the game remained 3-3 late into the second quarter.
Operating the no-huddle, Roethlisberger went right after one of the best cornerbacks in the game today, Joe Haden, with the NFL’s leading receiver. He threw deep to Antonio Brown, who beat Haden down the left sideline, then had to wait a bit because the cold wind held up the ball. He caught it, bobbled it and fell into the end zone with it sitting on his stomach. He grasped it for a 41-yard touchdown and a 10-3 lead with 2:33 left in the half.
“It was actually called to get Jerricho [Cotchery] the ball because of the coverage they gave us,” Roethlisberger said. “I peeked outside to AB and he had a step on him, so I let it fly and he made a great play.”
Polamalu made the next one. He stripped Browns fullback Chris Ogbonnaya of the ball and recovered it at the Steelers 46 with 1:46 to go in the half. They turned that one into a Suisham 32-yard field goal with seven seconds left and a 13-3 halftime lead.
Gay and Allen then set up Sanders for his third-quarter touchdown and a 20-3 lead and Gay would make it 27-3 with his first NFL touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Browns finally found the end zone when Josh Gordon scored on one of his 14 receptions, from 1 yard, and they converted 2 points after the score. Gordon was Cleveland’s lone bright spot on offense, his 237 receiving yards the bulk of their total offense of 367.
“It was definitely nice getting turnovers,” Polamalu said, “but we gave up a lot of big plays on the back end. If we want to compete with the elite teams in this league, we can’t do that.”
Yet there were many signs they are fast approaching that. They sacked quarterbacks Campbell and Brandon Weeden five times.
Rookie Le’Veon Bell had his second-best game running with 80 yards on 23 carries. Roethlisberger was not sacked for the first time this season and ran his record against the Browns to 16-1 after completing 22 of 34 passes for 217 yards, no interceptions and a 102.2 passer rating.
“Because of the weather, and not knowing what was going to happen and them being a really good defense, the game plan was to come in and run the ball,” Roethlisberger said of a day that began with a wind chill of 10 degrees. “Even in the no-huddle. So it was run-heavy and I ended up opening some passes.”
The running game wasn’t that successful, though, with only 85 yards on 34 carries, albeit against one of the NFL’s best run defenses.
“We wanted to run the ball a little better than we did,” Beachum said. “We still have a ways to go in that area.”
No one said they were a finished product, or Super Bowl contenders. But they not only are contenders for a playoff spot, they’re in the thick of it. That would have been considered a fantasy after they went 2-6 in the first half of the season.
“No, we’re not dead,” Sanders said. “Are we out of the hole? No, I don’t think so.”
Actually, they are. Coach Mike Tomlin would just prefer you do not tell them that.
“Nice accomplishment,” he said, “but not a lot of time to admire our work.”
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published November 24, 2013 1:38 PM