Derek Watt had plunged into the end zone from the 1-yard line, and the Steelers built their lead to 14 points after Kenny Pickett connected with Diontae Johnson for the 2-point conversion. Then came Chris Boswell's kickoff, and after the return minus a holding penalty, the Browns got the ball at their 15-yard line with 4:30 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Then the scoreboard went black, which means that it was time for the traditional playing of "Renegade," which is an every-game event designed to serve the dual purposes of energizing the crowd at Acrisure Stadium and serving as a call to arms for the Steelers defense to clamp down on the opposing offense. But this time, "Renegade" was incapable of providing the Steelers the kind of help they really needed, because shortly after the song ended and the Terrible Towels stopped twirling, Miami placekicker Jason Sanders drilled a 50-yard field goal between the pipes to give the Dolphins a 9-6 lead over the New York Jets.
At 4:02 p.m., the Dolphins had burned the final 12 seconds of the game and secured an 11-6 victory, and the Steelers season would not be afforded the opportunity to last another week. Their 28-14 victory over the Browns gave them a 7-2 record after their bye following their 2-6 start, and while they would extend the franchise's streak of non-losing seasons to 19 and Coach Mike Tomlin's individual streak to 16, there would be no playoffs for them. Their season was over.
"I'm appreciative of the efforts today," said Tomlin in the immediate aftermath. "I'm appreciative of the efforts all year. We're an evolving group, and that evolution continued even into today. But I'm just appreciative of the collective. I'm appreciative of the men, not what they're capable of, but what they're willing to do. In the face of adversity that football presents, in the face of adversity that life presents, we have an opportunity to kind of display some things in all of that."
Najee Harris was one of the many Steelers players who got off to a slow start in 2022, but with 84 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Browns, he finished with 1,038 yards rushing and 1,267 yards from scrimmage. Harris finished the game vs. the Browns with more rushing yards than Nick Chubb (84-77), and Tomlin characterized that as one of the team goals for this particular game.
"Late-in-the-season football, your featured runner has got to be the best featured runner in the stadium," said Tomlin. "It was not only about challenging our defensive front, but it was about challenging our offensive front to make sure that Najee had a good day. So, I think we checked both of those boxes."
Cam Heyward had two sacks of Deshaun Watson and was robbed of a third when he was flagged for a ridiculous roughing the passer penalty that simply came down to securing the tackle of a guy who had broken so many and escaped so often to that point in the game. Still, Heyward finished with 10.5 sacks on the season, the third time in his career he has finished in double-digits, and with 78.5 sacks now in his career he moved into second place on the franchise's all-time list, just 2 behind James Harrison's 80.5.
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 18 game against the Cleveland Browns at Acrisure Stadium
"I'm going to evaluate myself just like everyone evaluates themselves and learn where I can get better," said Heyward. "Whether it's getting with my pass rush coach, whether it's getting better at stopping the run, using my hands better, better shape, all that has to be considered. Already got a text from my pass rush coach, Chuck Smith, telling me, 'Let's get back to work.' I'm just appreciative of everyone. I won't discount anything these guys did today or through the season because it's a team effort, and those guys came to work every day, no matter injuries or how gloomy it looked. Starting the season 2-6, these guys came to play, and I can be totally proud of a group that continues to get better."
Kenny Pickett wasn't as sharp in the final against the Browns as he had been in other recent outings, evidenced by his 44.8 completion percentage (the lowest of his young NFL career), but for the eighth time in the last 9 games, during which the Steelers were 7-2, he did not throw an interception. It was quite the turnaround for the rookie who threw 7 interceptions in his first 12 quarters as an NFL starter.
"I'm not really sure," said Pickett when asked what he showed his teammates during his rookie season. "I think you have to ask them. I just want to be consistent. I want to be a consistent guy, a consistent leader. I want to continue to improve. I don't think I'm anywhere close to what I can be and what I'm going to be, so I'm excited to attack the offseason and take that leap into year No. 2."
But while the end of the season had the look and feel of progress in many areas, the offense, particularly offensive production when it comes to producing chunk plays and scoring touchdowns, never seemed to match the available talent.
A prime example is wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who finished the season with 147 targets that became 86 catches for 882 yards, but he scored no touchdowns. The longest play of the season that resulted in a touchdown was a 31-yard catch by George Pickens, and that didn't happen until the second quarter of the 17th game. The Steelers offense finished the season with 364 completions and 480 rushes, but only three of the completions netted 40-or-more yards, and only five of the rushes gained 20-or-more yards.
The Steelers defense allowed 17 points or fewer in 10 games, including the last 7 games in a row, but the team's record was 9-8 because the offense scored 17 points or fewer in five games, all of which ended up being losses. In only three of the 17 games did the Steelers score as many as three offensive touchdowns, and they didn't score four in any.
This reality should not and cannot be lost among the feel-good of the 7-2 finish.
"I think the way that we finished this season, we should be really proud of ourselves," said Najee Harris. "We can see how our future is. We're young, but we're also really talented and I think that for us to come together through all of the adversity we had earlier in the year, especially to finish out the season the way we did, it's motivation for us. We should be hungry for next year. That's what I was telling Kenny [Pickett] on the sideline when I saw him. I just shook his hand and told him he had a great year.
"We just have to do a lot as a team if we want to be all right next year and not waiting for other teams to lose to get in."