It was as it was supposed to be, because it was what it needed to be.
The Steelers had two things they needed to accomplish against the Cleveland Browns on Monday night at Heinz Field. The most important was to win the game, because that was the only way to carry their playoff hopes into the final weekend of the regular season. The second was to deliver a proper send-off to Ben Roethlisberger in his final game at Heinz Field.
For some in his situation, the send-off might have been more important personally, might have been more satisfying, but because Roethlisberger is such a maniacal competitor, any send-off that didn't include a victory would've been a lasting disappointment. And a lasting disappointment for him more than the 63,624 paying customers who sat through hours of 19-degree wind chill temperatures to be a part of franchise history while paying their respects to one of that franchise's most significant players.
And his teammates knew that more than anyone.
"Honestly, I think for me," said Cam Heyward, who is the Steelers defensive captain to Roethlisberger's offensive captain, "I just wanted to make sure he got the 'W.'"
Mission accomplished, even if it wasn't pretty. And because it wasn't pretty, because it was gritty and hard-fought, it was the perfect going away present for the guy Heyward sat before the media and respectfully referred to as "a Hall of Fame quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers legend, Hall of Honor guy."
Roethlisberger is all of that, plus a two-time Super Bowl champion and a quarterback who will end his career among the all-time statistical leaders at his position in the long, storied history of the National Football League. A detailed recitation of those statistical accomplishments and where Roethlisberger ranks will come at a later date, but Monday night at Heinz Field was more about feel than any of the numbers besides the final ones on the scoreboard.
Fitting with the occasion, Roethlisberger was followed and videoed and recorded from the moment he first walked into Heinz Field hours before kickoff, followed by the team's media, by the Pittsburgh media, and by ESPN, which drew the lucky straw and got the chance to broadcast the game and his every movement around the world. He tried his best to remain stoic throughout that part of his night, and Roethlisberger mainly succeeded, just as he had succeeded in making this 2021 season about his team and how it did rather than allowing it to become about his victory lap around the NFL.
"Just so appreciative of No. 7, appreciate everyone's efforts," said Coach Mike Tomlin to open his postgame remarks to the media. "It was a total team effort. We did what we needed to in all three phases, so we're appreciative. We've got a short week this week, got to go to Baltimore. More AFC North football, and you guys know how we feel about that. We're excited about that opportunity. We'll get singularly focused and go put forth our best effort.
"But tonight we just pause, and we're appreciative of No. 7 and his body of work, and having the awesome opportunity to share in this moment with him. He shared some words with his teammates, and it was just a beautiful thing. Like I said several times during the week (leading up to this game) and I meant it, Ben really did a nice job setting the pace. He was singularly focused. It was business as usual, and so he was easy to follow, and I think everybody got their vibe from him in that way. Obviously, it was an extremely emotional night and all that, but he did a really good job kind of setting the pace for that approach all week."
The phrase "just win, baby" forever will be attributed to the late Al Davis, but Roethlisberger lived those words throughout his 18 seasons in professional football. And once time provides some perspective between the game vs. the Browns and the occasion that was celebrated on Monday, Jan. 3, it will become clear how appropriate and fitting the Steelers' 26-14 victory was as the exclamation point to Roethlisberger's accomplishments there.
There have been games played inside Heinz Field where Roethlisberger was dominant statistically, where he was the reason the Steelers won, where his individual brilliance seemed to overshadow the outcome rather than simply contribute to it. None of that describes Monday night vs. the Browns, but 26-14 forever will be a reminder of what made Ben Roethlisberger who he is and why he will be so darn difficult to replace.
More than any position on a football team, quarterbacks are measured by wins, and for Steelers fans wins are measured not only in terms of games but more importantly in terms of championships. Lombardi Trophies. That's the standard against which all Steelers quarterbacks are measured and valued. Roethlisberger himself always deferred to Terry Bradshaw when the topic of the pantheon of Steelers quarterbacks was broached, and his reasoning was simple arithmetic. Four for Bradshaw. Two for him.
There were no trophies to be won as a result of Monday night's outcome vs. the Browns, not even a playoff berth to be secured, but winning is winning, and sometimes the will to win speaks loudest when the stakes are lowest. Ben Roethlisberger always has been about the pursuit of victory, whether the prize is a Lombardi Trophy or simply bragging rights for being the guy to hit the upright from 40 yards away before a training camp practice. And he not only wants to win, but he's willing to do whatever is required to win.
Against the Browns, what was required was handing the ball to rookie running back Najee Harris often and largely avoiding the kinds of mistakes that would've prevented the Steelers defense from being able to treat Baker Mayfield like a prop in the evening's drama.
Harris finished with 188 yards on 28 carries (6.7 average), and added 18 more on three receptions to finish with 206 yards from scrimmage, and the Steelers defense held Cleveland's No. 3 rushing attack under 100 yards and sacked Mayfield nine times, which was a single-game career-high for him. T.J. Watt led with four, and with 21.5 on the season he needs 1.5 more to break Michael Strahan's NFL single-season record of 22.5; Alex Highsmith contributed two; and Heyward, Derrick Tuszka, and Henry Mondeaux added one apiece.
In addition to sacking Mayfield nine times, the Steelers defense hit him 11 times, intercepted him twice, and broke up 11 of his passes. Oh, and the unit also limited Nick Chubb to 58 yards on 12 carries, with 32 of those 58 coming in one chunk. For his part, Roethlisberger did throw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson to open the game's scoring, and that gave him 236 inside Heinz Field for his career, and he led by showing his teammates that preparing and playing to win the game was the most important thing to him. And since it was all that mattered to him, it made it easier for them to treat it with the same sense of purpose, which was the foundation for the night's happy ending.
"This place, Heinz Field, is so special to me. You know, just like this city is," said Roethlisberger. "I'm very thankful and blessed to call this home, so thank you to all the fans and everybody. I was born in Ohio, but I live here and I'll always be here.
"These fans and this place mean so much to me and my family and always will. I've always said they're the best fans in all of sports, and I'll stick by that to the day I die. To see all the signs and jerseys and Terrible Towels, and to hear them cheer for me coming out of the tunnel, all that stuff, I don't know that I'll ever put it into words. I wish I could bottle it and have it forever. But I will in (my heart) and in my mind."
And even though it was a school night and as brutal a night as this winter has offered so far in Western Pennsylvania this season, the fans stayed. They stayed until the end of the game, they stayed for Roethlisberger to complete the required on-field postgame interviews, for his victory lap, to watch him soak up the scene and the occasion, and to let him know that all he has done for the Steelers, and by extension done for them, is and forever will be appreciated.
"(The win) wasn't pretty, but like I said out on the field," said Roethlisberger, "it feels like that's been my style. Not pretty but finding a way to win. I think that's 92 wins here at Heinz Field, and what it's always been about for me is winning football games. This is one more, and it's very special."