The Steelers finished with a flourish by running away from the Cleveland Browns, 24-10, Sunday at Heinz Field. It closed a disappointing season with a victory that some players believed could help them for 2013.
Their coach did not feel that way -- that a season-ending victory over the Browns and their third-string quarterback who made his first NFL appearance would carry momentum into next season.
"No," Mike Tomlin explained, "because this year is this year and next year is next year."
Tomlin and the Steelers can only hope that next year is not like this year. They avoided their first losing season in nine by going 8-8, but they missed the playoffs for the second time in four years by losing five of their final seven games, and they lost four more starters to injuries.
And their quarterback acknowledged that he just wasn't right after he returned from a three-game hiatus brought on by shoulder and rib injuries. Ben Roethlisberger had his best game of the four he has played in since coming back, completing 15 of 23 passes for 134 yards and no interceptions. His passer rating of 120.3 reflected his three touchdown passes of 1 yard to Leonard Pope, 9 yards to Antonio Brown and 12 yards to Plaxico Burress.
After saying he was fine, Roethlisberger acknowledged that "I don't know if I'm healthy enough to go" to the Pro Bowl if, as a second alternate, he moves up as others drop out or play in the Super Bowl.
"Just get healthy first and foremost," Roethlisberger said of his immediate goal. "I already started to formulate a plan with [conditioning coach] Garrett Giemont to get my body better and ready to go."
The Steelers never trailed Sunday, but the Browns and quarterback Thaddeus Lewis were tied with them, 10-10, late in the third quarter. The Browns also were able to run for 138 yards on the Steelers, although 35 of those came on a fake punt run by Ray Ventrone.
The game in no way reflected the Steelers play in 2012 -- it was just the opposite. The Steelers lost too many games in which they piled up more yards -- and turnovers -- than their opponents. Sunday, the Browns outgained them in yards, 320-212, and had more turnovers, 4-0.
It was a stark difference from 20-14 loss Nov. 25 at Cleveland in which they lost eight turnovers.
"We got a few turnovers there, capitalized, put seven points on the board as opposed to field goals," Tomlin noted. "It was critical for us."
Cornerback Cortez Allen was involved in two more, forcing two fumbles to go with two interceptions and a forced fumble in the previous game.
"I hope I can do that every game," Allen said, and next season he will get more chances if they do not re-sign cornerback Keenan Lewis.
Allen's second forced fumble came with the Steelers clinging to a 17-10 lead. The fumble recovery led to one of the more satisfying moments for those left among the 51,831 who turned out for the game.
The Steelers took over at the Browns 27 and on third down from the 12, Roethlisberger threw to the middle of the end zone, a little behind Burress, who made a nice catch for his first touchdown in a Steelers uniform in eight years.
Burress rose up, took two deep bows and then saluted the Heinz Field crowd.
"It just feels good to walk up and down the streets and people wish you well, and people want you to go out and play well," Burress said of his return to the Steelers Nov. 20. "I'm glad I could go out there and score a touchdown and everyone was standing up clapping."
Lawrence Timmons topped off his best season with two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two quarterback hurries.
Troy Polamalu also intercepted a pass, his only one of the season. That brought the Steelers total to just 10 for the season, one fewer than they had in 2011.
Jonathan Dwyer's 52 yards rushing gave him the team lead with 623, one of the lowest totals by their leading rusher since they joined the AFC in 1970.
The Steelers victory snapped a three-game losing streak and also avoided a Cleveland sweep of the series for the first time since 1988. The Browns slipped to 5-11 amid a report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that coach Pat Shurmur would be fired.
"We really did not win enough games and we're not competing next week," Shurmur said. "I was never really worried about that and I have no regrets."
The Steelers won't go through nearly the kinds of changes in store for the Browns under their new ownership. Regime change in Cleveland is routine, sort of how making the playoffs had become in Pittsburgh. Just not this year for the Steelers.
"We wanted to come out and finish the year with a win and have a good feeling going into the offseason," Roethlisberger said. "That is what we did."Steelers - mobilehome
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @EdBouchette. First Published December 31, 2012 5:00 AM