On a day when the scenarios all were dependent on other teams, the outcome of their game was going to come down to them and only them. There are certain games on every schedule that fit into this category, and so it was for Steelers vs. Browns earlier today at Heinz Field.
The second installment of the 2013 version of the Pittsburgh-Cleveland home-and-home deserved to be viewed as a game totally in the control of the Steelers, simply because of the way these teams arrived at the site. The Steelers' travels were smoothed by five wins over their previous seven games, while the Browns' road was pockmarked by six straight losses.
In situations such as these, the better of the teams is in control, one way or the other. Play well and win. Mess around, get sloppy, turn the ball over, give the underdog some hope early, and then you find yourself in a fight to the finish.
Sunday afternoon was going to be about the Steelers, and it's to their credit that they realized that and responded accordingly. The 20-7 final score proved it.
A couple of days before the regular season finale, Coach Mike Tomlin was asked what the keys to this game were going to be.
"To play our game. To come out and get after them early. To establish rhythm. To make situational plays to feed off the other units," said Tomlin. "I thought that was one of the critical things that happened in Green Bay for us. Early on when they put together some scoring drives on our defense, our offense responded with some scoring drives of its own. Then in the second half when we turned the ball over a couple of times, our defense took the field with the right mentality geared toward minimizing that turnover. We need that kind of ebb and flow today."
Come out and get after them early was accomplished over the course of the game's first two series. Cleveland won the toss, took the ball, ran three plays and punted. The Steelers took the punt, and nine plays later the ball was in the end zone, thanks to a Ben Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery pass, and the better team had asserted itself and taken control.
The Steelers maintained a measure of control by never descending to the Browns' depths, despite not playing perfect football themselves. Over the rest of the first half, Pittsburgh did turn the ball over once and commit one more penalty than the Browns, but the Steelers were in control of the situational football aspects. Cleveland converted 1-for-6 on third downs, while the Steelers were 4-of-6 on third downs and 2-for-2 in the red zone. Add it up and it translated to a 14-0 lead, and from there, well, had this been a tennis match, the Steelers spent the bulk of the second half allowing the other guy to hit it into the net.
And that's what happened during a second half in which the Steelers added a couple of Shaun Suisham field goals, while the Browns failed on three fourth-down conversions, tried and failed to execute an onside kick, and then turned the ball over with just a minute to play to ice the outcome.
"I feel like we gave it our all," said Lawrence Timmons. "You get what you put into it. Just to put a performance out there for our fans in the last game at Heinz Field and to get a win like that – a great team win – is beautiful. It speaks volumes to the franchise."
It speaks volumes for this group of players, too, because 2013 was a season that began with them being completely incapable of winning the games they should win, and it ended with them taking care of their own business.
In the NFL, that represents real progress.