Rocky finish: Key injury mars not-so-grand season finale for Steelers
Steelers receiver Hines Ward got five receptions to reach 1,000 in his career, only the eighth receiver in NFL history to do so.
Hines Ward celebrates with Jerricho Cotchery Sunday after hauling in his 1,000th career reception.
Share with others:
CLEVELAND -- The Steelers won the battle but lost the holiday bauble that would have brought them a gift of a first-round postseason bye and a home game.
Instead, they will open their playoffs at 4:30 p.m. Sunday as a wild-card team in Denver at Sports Authority Field against the Broncos, the AFC West Division champions, and hope to follow the same path they did in 2005 by winning four in a row to claim a seventh Super Bowl championship.
The Steelers did their part toward a parlay that might have brought them the No. 2 playoff seed by beating Cleveland, 13-9, with Hines Ward getting the five receptions he needed to hit 1,000 a happy by-product.
But at the other end of Ohio, the Baltimore Ravens beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 24-16, to clinch the AFC North Division title and the No. 2 seed in the conference and a bye. The New England Patriots have the No. 1 seed and the other bye.
"We have our marching orders," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We're on our way to Denver. ... We're excited about that. We're comfortable in that arena and we look forward to pursuing the Lombardi [Trophy]."
But they will have to do so without their starting running back. Rashard Mendenhall left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury that Tomlin feared was an ACL tear, which takes 6 to 8 months of rehabilitation.
That further dampened the day for the Steelers, who learned almost simultaneously that they had won and they had lost as the Ravens topped the Bengals, who still made the playoffs as the No. 6 seed.
"I think this team is ready," linebacker James Farrior declared, saying the team's 2005 run -- they won the AFC title at Denver -- was "one of my favorite times, going on the road.
"We're going out to Denver again, a hostile environment. We love being in those situations and we thrive on it."
Perhaps, but they have struggled on the road this season. They went 5-3 but the game Sunday was typical of their play away from home, struggling to beat a team that finished 4-12. They also barely won in Indianapolis, which finished 2-14.
"We better have resolved it," Farrior said of their problems playing away from home.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed the game last week with a high ankle sprain, started and played the entire game. He completed 23 of 40 passes for 221 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions and limped heavily out of the locker room afterward. He was sacked twice.
"Of course he's not 100 percent but there are many guys out there that are in uniform that aren't," Tomlin said.
"I feel awesome," Roethlisberger said.
Isaac Redman replaced Mendenhall and rushed for 92 yards on 19 carries and one touchdown but he also lost two fourth-quarter fumbles that helped keep the Browns in the game. He and rookie John Clay, on the practice squad two weeks ago, represent the only two healthy backs, although Mewelde Moore might be able to play after missing two games with a sprained knee.
"He carried the ball quite a bit," Tomlin said of Redman. "He had 19 or 20 carries. ... Obviously we'd like him to hold onto the football better than he did there at the end of the game."
The Steelers, who trailed, 6-3, at halftime, broke in front 13-9 after three quarters. They scored 10 points on their first two drives of the second half, and hung on for another tight victory on the road.
Shaun Suisham kicked two field goals and tied the score at 6-6 with a 29-yard field goal after the first drive of the second half and Redman ran 7 yards for a touchdown.
Troy Polamalu set things up for the offense by intercepting a Seneca Wallace pass at the Cleveland 43. It was the first turnover forced by the Steelers in the past three games and Polamalu's second interception of the season.
The offense took it from there, using the no-huddle on the six-play drive that ended when Redman ran behind a Heath Miller block 7 yards for the game's only touchdown.
Cleveland's Phil Dawson kicked his third field goal of the game, from 49 yards late in the third quarter.
It was another ugly game played in winds gusting to 40 mph that played havoc with passes.
"I think the ball sailed on both sides of the ball," is how Farrior put it.
The Steelers salvaged something out of the first half when Roethlisberger completed a 40-yard pass to Antonio Brown, who made a near-mirror catch of the one in the playoff a year ago against Baltimore, securing the ball to his helmet with his left hand.
That carried the ball to the 14, and Brown -- voted last week by his teammates as their MVP -- caught another pass of 13 yards to the 1. Roethlisberger tried two passes into the end zone that fell incomplete before Suisham kicked a 19-yard field goal
Brown again led the Steelers with six receptions for 90 yards.
First Published January 2, 2012 12:00 am