STEELERS 41, BROWNS 9
Steelers' record: 12-4
One year ago: 9-7
Series record (including playoffs): Steelers lead, 62-56
This was one of those rare regular season games where a specific reward awaited the Steelers if they won. Defeating the Browns would mean the AFC North Division title, and more important to their hopes of getting to one of those postseason games ending in a trophy presentation, a bye in the first round of the playoffs and a home game in the Divisional Round. All season, the Steelers had found ways to win the games they absolutely needed to win, and this game in Cleveland fell into that category.
The Steelers had a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, but the Browns drove to a first-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 5-yard line as the period ended. The Steelers defense held and forced the Browns to settle for a 19-yard field goal, and then 11 plays later Rashard Mendenhall's 1-yard run upped the lead to 21-3 and killed any remaining legitimate hope the Browns had for an upset.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT
The Steelers' division championship was their 20th since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, and no team has more during that time frame.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
* The Browns took the opening kickoff and began the game in a spread formation and also went no-huddle. After Colt McCoy completed a 14-yard pass on the first play, his second attempt bounced off Ben Watson and was intercepted by Troy Polamalu. On the Steelers' first play, Ben Roethlisberger used play-action and hit Mike Wallace with a 56-yard touchdown.
- On a third-and-3 from the Browns 5-yard line, the Steelers deployed in a spread formation with Ben Roethlisberger in the shotgun. This opened up the middle of the Browns defense, and the quarterback draw was good for 4 yards and a first down. On the next play, Rashard Mendenhall's 12th rushing touchdown made it 14-0 midway through the first quarter.
- This is why you always hustle on defense. James Harrison tripped up Mohammad Massaquoi after a 31-yard pass play to the Steelers 5-yard line. Peyton Hillis took a shovel pass to the 2-yard line, and then consecutive incomplete passes led to a 19-yard field goal. What looked like a certain 14-7 game turned into a 14-3 game.
- During the run-up to the weekend's games, the Baltimore Ravens let it be known they planned to provide scoring updates of the Steelers-Browns game to the fans at M&T Bank Stadium during their game against the Bengals. Before the second quarter was half over, the Steelers' lead had grown to 21-3.
- The Steelers scored on each of their first six offensive possessions – five touchdowns and a field goal – to build a 38-3 lead to the midway point of the third quarter.
- The ideal situation was to have the game unfold in a manner in which the Steelers would win the game and not put any of their key players at risk of injury. Before the first half ended, James Farrior had been replaced by Larry Foote. When the second half opened, Troy Polamalu was on the bench for the opening series, and then after the offense scored the touchdown to make it 38-3, Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and Rashard Mendenhall all were given the rest of the afternoon off.
WHAT WENT WRONG
* On the Browns' second series, Bryant McFadden left the field with a groin injury. He was replaced at cornerback by William Gay, and then Anthony Madison moved up when the team went to multiple defensive backs.
- On a first-and-15 from near midfield, Lawrence Timmons had Colt McCoy shrug him off to escape a sack, and then McCoy's pass went through Peyton Hillis' hands and right to wide receiver Brown Robiskie who made the catch for a first down.
The decision whether to play Troy Polamalu in the regular season finale was debated in the run-up to the game, and Coach Mike Tomlin explained how the decision was made, and why.
"Troy is an energy bringer instead of an energy drainer," said Tomlin. "Just his presence alone uplifts his teammates. He has a quiet confident manner about him, one that is endearing. Guys just enjoy his company, they enjoy being around him. He instills confidence in others just by his presence."
Polamalu practiced lightly on the Friday before the game, and when he did suffer a setback, he was in the starting lineup.
"First and foremost, it's the expert opinion of the medical staff, and then I listen to how he feels in regards to the information I'm getting from them. Ultimately we'll all put our heads together to make the decision and move forward."
After the game Tomlin said McFadden's injury was the most serious of those sustained during the game, but the bye should help him considerably.