Steelers rock Browns to clinch division and a byeBy TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer Monday, Jan 3, 2011
CLEVELAND (AP)—There was no excessive celebrating in Pittsburgh’s locker room following the Steelers’ biggest win this season.
The AFC North title was nice, but not worth gloating over.
And not with much bigger goals and much bigger championships in mind.
“This is just hardware along the way,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said.
Striking for a touchdown on their first offensive play, the Steelers, who came in needing a victory to lock up their division and a first-round playoff bye, routed Cleveland 41-9 on Sunday and handed Browns coach Eric Mangini a devastating loss as he fights for his job.
Ben Roethlisberger(notes) threw two touchdown passes as the Steelers (12-4) geared up for another postseason run they hope doesn’t end until they’ve got their hands wrapped around another Lombardi Trophy.
“We love to win the division,” said Roethlisberger, who got to rest for much of the second half. “This is a hard division. We hope this is just the beginning.”
Roethlisberger threw a 56-yard TD to speedster Mike Wallace(notes) on his first pass and the Steelers built a 31-3 halftime lead and rocked the Browns (5-11), who couldn’t muster much of a fight in their finale—and probably Mangini’s farewell.
The Steelers clinched the No. 2 seed in the AFC and guaranteed themselves at least one more game at Heinz Field.
“Mission accomplished,” said Tomlin, one of the few Pittsburgh members sporting a black-and-white championship cap. “Today was the first game where we felt like we played close to what we’re capable of.”
After missing the playoffs last season and a chance to defend their Super Bowl crown, the Steelers are not taking anything for granted.
“This year we came back,” said wide receiver Hines Ward(notes). “If you would’ve said at the start of the season we would have a 12-4 record, the only people that would believe you are the guys in this locker room.”
On the other side of Browns Stadium, the home team braced for more change.
Mangini fell to 10-22 in two seasons with Cleveland. On Monday morning, he’s scheduled to meet with team president Mike Holmgren, who may fire him and appoint himself coach. When the game ended, a downcast Mangini was consoled by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who will reportedly interview for Carolina’s head coaching vacancy.
Mangini doesn’t know what’s ahead, but his demeanor was that of a beaten man.
“We’ll see where it goes,” Mangini said. “I think the team has done a lot of good things this season. It’s difficult to feel any positives in the wake of what happened.”
This was more redemption for Roethlisberger.
He began the season serving a four-game suspension—cut from six by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell—for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. There was no telling how the Steelers would do without him. But they went 3-1 without their leader, and in his first game, he threw three TD passes in a 28-10 win over Cleveland on Oct. 17.
Not only did Roethlisberger return as the same physical talent, he came back a more mature person.
Big Ben, now more at peace with himself, has hardly been better.
“We have been through a lot,” he said. “Now, it’s playoff time.”
Roethlisberger went 15 of 22 for 280 yards. He has thrown 158 passes without an interception, the longest streak of his career and further evidence of improved judgment and composure not always present.
“Ben came through adversity,” Ward said. “He stepped up, not that he hasn’t in the past. But this season didn’t start like other seasons.”
It was time to start planning for the playoffs. But before Tomlin could get all his starters out, rookie center Maurkice Pouncey(notes) suffered a neck stinger. Earlier, starting left cornerback Bryant McFadden(notes) injured his groin and did not return.
Otherwise, these Steelers appeared fit and focused.
They finished tied with Baltimore, but won the North for the fifth time in nine years because of a better division record. It wasn’t assured until they avoided a slip-up and avenged last season’s 13-6 loss in Cleveland, when a 1-11 Browns team sacked Roethlisberger eight times.
Rashard Mendenhall’s(notes) two short TD bursts and Roethlisberger’s scoring passes to Wallace—following Troy Polamalu’s(notes) interception of rookie Colt McCoy(notes)—and Heath Miller(notes) gave the Steelers a 28-3 lead. It swelled to 38-3 in the third on wide receiver Antwaan Randle El’s(notes) 3-yard TD pass to Ward.
“We knew we had a lot riding on this game,” Miller said. “Our whole season came down to this. All of our goals hinged on this. We knew we had to take care of business.”
Cleveland’s fourth straight loss will likely be the final straw for Mangini, who kept his job last year when his team closed with a four-game winning streak. The Browns improved in several statistical areas, but went 2-6 following an upset of New England on Nov. 7.
Holmgren will discuss the future with him early Monday. It doesn’t look good for Mangini, who was fired by the New York Jets after the 2008 season. He made strides with the Browns, but probably not enough to convince Holmgren that he deserves a third season.