CLEVELAND -- The Steelers took another body blow of an injury when they lost starting halfback Rashard Mendenhall with a possible ACL tear in his right knee and they might lose safety Ryan Clark to the potential hazards to him playing in the high altitude in Denver.
Mendenhall went down late in the first quarter without being hit, and coach Mike Tomlin said he feared it was an ACL tear, which requires a 6- to 8-month rehabilitation.
Whatever it is, he will not play in Denver and likely is out for the playoffs.
"It's not good, of course, when a guy goes down in open grass not touched by anyone," Tomlin said. "Experience tells me that, generally, that's not good."
Isaac Redman, who rushed for 92 yards against the Browns, and rookie John Clay, on the practice squad two weeks ago, are the team's only healthy running backs. Veteran Mewelde Moore, who missed the past two games with a MCL sprain in his knee, could return for the playoff game in Denver.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger criticized Cleveland fans for their reaction when Mendenhall was hurt.
"I know these Browns fans are passionate about their Browns but when you hear fans cheer when a guy goes down, that's really disappointing," he said.
Clark did not play the most recent time the Steelers were in Denver in 2009, because of the violent reaction his body had when they played there in '07. He has the sickle cell trait and the exertion of playing in Denver prompted a reaction by his blood that caused him to lose his spleen and gall bladder, ended his season and nearly his life.
Tomlin, Clark and others will discuss the situation today and perhaps decide by Tuesday if he will play. Clark said he will follow the advice of the doctors and his coach.
"Last time we went, we exercised some precaution," Tomlin said. "We chose not to play him but we worked him out extensively to see how he responded to that and they gathered the information and data in that regard. Now we get an opportunity to utilize it.
"We, we'll put some heads together, and when I'm talking about heads I'm talking about medical experts, not myself. We'll see what the medical experts have to say and then we'll go from there."
Ryan Mundy would play free safety if Clark does not go.
"It's going to be tough," linebacker James Farrior said. "[Clark] is one of the vocal leaders on this team. Hopefully, the medical staff can get him back out there. Whenever you miss a guy like that, it's going to hurt."
Troy Polamalu's interception was the only turnover, leaving the Steelers with just 15 this season, the fewest at least since 1969. Their four fumble recoveries were fewer by far than they have had since at least 1966.
It was Polamalu's second interception to go with his fumble recovery for a touchdown.
"Got lucky, I guess," said Polamalu, the only Steelers defensive player to make the Pro Bowl. "Sometimes you guess right."
Ben Roethlisberger had more than 4,000 yards passing for the second time in his career, the only quarterback in Steelers history to top that mark.
Roethlisberger, who missed last week's game with his high ankle sprain, passed for 4,077 yards. He owns the team record with 4,328 in 2009.
He also recorded his 80th regular-season victory Sunday and is 14-1 in his career against the Cleveland Browns.
In getting to 80 victories in his first 113 games as an NFL starter, Roethlisberger joins New England's Tom Brady, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and former Oakland Raiders quarterback Kenny Stabler as the only quarterbacks to do so in the Super Bowl era (1967-present).
Although the Browns had a lousy 4-12 season and are the only team from the AFC North Division not to make the playoffs, a bright spot for them was the play of rookie defensive end Jabaal Sheard, a second-round draft choice from Pitt.
Sheard sacked Roethlisberger for a 13-yard loss early in the fourth quarter when he beat offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert. It gave Sheard a team-high 8 1/2 sacks. He also was credited with six tackles and had a quarterback hurry.
"He had a heck of a year, front to back," Browns coach Pat Shurmur of Sheard. "He's a good football player. He shows up in games like this [even though the Browns had been eliminated from playoff contention]."
The Steelers home and away opponents for 2012 have been set, with 14 predetermined and the final two decided Sunday. Dates won't be announced until the spring.
• Home games -- Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City, San Diego, Philadelphia, Washington and the New York Jets.
• Away games -- Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Oakland, Dallas, the New York Giants and the Tennessee Titans.
Tight end Heath Miller had two catches for 23 yards to pass Hall of Famer Lynn Swann into fourth place with 337 career receptions. ... The Steelers lost several of their top backup cornerbacks with injuries: Nickel back Keenan Lewis said he injured his hamstring and rookie dime back Cortez Allen separated his right shoulder. Because of those injuries, former starting cornerback Bryant McFadden had to play in the sub packages. ... The Steelers, who gained 161 yards on the ground despite losing Mendenhall in the first half have outrushed 10 of their past 12 opponents. ... The Steelers finished the regular season with only 35 sacks, their lowest total since 2003. ... In eight home games, the Browns scored a total of eight touchdowns. ... The Steelers did not allow a 100-plus yard receiving performance by an opponent this season and held five of their past six opponents to less than 10 points.
Here were the players who were inactive for Sunday's game in Cleveland:
• Steelers -- Running back Mewelde Moore, linebacker Chris Carter, linebacker LaMarr Woodley, offensive lineman Doug Legursky, defensive end Al Woods, offensive tackle Jamon Meredith, wide receiver Arnaz Battle.
• Browns -- Wide receiver Jordan Norwood, quarterback Colt McCoy, wide receiver Rod Windson, defensive back James Dockery, offensive lineman Steve Vallos, defensive lineman Kiante Tripp, offensive lineman Tony Pashos.
Gerry Dulac, Gene Collier and Ron Cook contributed to this report. Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published January 2, 2012 5:00 AM