Labriola On

Labriola on win over the Browns

Let it serve as an example of why you draft the franchise quarterback when presented with the opportunity. The Steelers picked Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th selection in the 2004 draft, and while the two most significant victories to which he contributed happened in games that ended with presentations of the Lombardi Trophy, he also had his fingerprints all over Sunday's 30-9 victory over the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.

As for those Browns, their lesson has to do with the consequences of bypassing a franchise quarterback in a draft, and it's something with which they have been living for more than a decade of losing and the constant turnover of players and coaches and personnel people that goes hand-in-hand with a decade of losing.

When time expired in the 127th meeting of these storied NFL franchises, the team that had the common sense to draft the franchise quarterback when presented with the opportunity had cementing its status as a prime contender for an AFC playoff spot, while the Browns bumbled around in a defeat that had their owner having to answer questions about firing another coach after it was over.

That the Steelers and Browns are two teams headed in different directions this season is stating the obvious, and what happened at Heinz Field did more to define these Steelers than it did to reveal anything about the Browns that wasn't already known. The victory over Cleveland raised the Steelers' record to 6-4 as they head into their bye, and it added more anecdotal evidence to support the argument that Ben Roethlisberger is one of the NFL's difference-making quarterbacks. And Roethlisberger's performance this time included the added dimension of coming off the bench as the backup because it was one week after it was feared he had sustained a severe foot injury, and all he did was save his team in a game that was must-win for them in every sense but the mathematical.

On Nov. 8 against the Oakland Raiders, Roethlisberger's left foot had been sprained during a sack by Aldon Smith, and 48 hours later when Coach Mike Tomlin sat behind a microphone and said the prudent course of action was to prepare Landry Jones to start against the Browns, it made perfect sense. As the week progressed and the game against the Browns drew near, Roethlisberger was able to take part in larger portions of practice, and come the Friday before kickoff he had elevated his status to the NFL's literal definition of questionable, which is supposed to mean a 50-50 chance to play.

Wide receiver Antonio Brown made the highlight reel with a quick catch on a crossing route for a 56-yard touchdown with a little twist at the end...

With no setbacks resulting from the practices, Roethlisberger began his Sunday as Landry Jones' backup, because after all, he had sustained what initially was feared to be a severe foot injury and he is the No. 1 reason why these Steelers could possibly morph into contenders come the middle of January, but again, this was a game they really needed to win, and there isn't another player they have under contract who means more to them in the pursuit of any victory.

You want to believe you can beat the Browns at home with Landry Jones at quarterback, because that would give Roethlisberger a couple of weeks where his foot and his knee were spared the rigors of NFL competition. But since you really have to win this game, it would make no sense not to have him in uniform and available, at least and just in case.

As it happened, it didn't take long Roethlisberger to be needed, because on the Steelers' eighth play Jones had his ankle sprained and had to be taken to the locker room on a cart. After the game, Jones said he believes he could have continued if absolutely necessary, but all due respect, beating the Browns with 100 percent of Landry Jones was no lock, and so the Steelers turned to Roethlisberger to come to their rescue.

He came through, as has happened more often than not, and it was in dramatic fashion, as has happened more often than not. To those impressed by statistics, Roethlisberger completed 22-of-33 (67 percent) for 379 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. Four pass interference penalties that accounted for 141 yards put his impact on the Steelers' offense at 520 yards for the afternoon, but even those numbers don't do it justice. Steelers-Browns at Heinz Field was a game the home team really needed to win, and Roethlisberger was the difference on an afternoon where they would rush for only 23 yards until the garbage time situation created by his touchdown passes. He was the big reason – maybe not the sole reason – for the victory, but without him all of those other little reasons might not have added up to enough.

That's the way it is with these Steelers. They can go as far as their quarterback can take them, and so it's important they get into the homestretch of this regular season with him relatively healthy and playing well. It was touch-and-go there through a sprained knee and then this sprained foot, but the Steelers head into their bye with a 6-4 record and with Roethlisberger seemingly on the rise. Now comes a week to heal, followed by a trip to Seattle for a game against an NFC opponent that won't be nearly as important as was this one vs. the Browns, followed by a five-weekend stretch of games against AFC competition to prove they belong in the postseason.

With their quarterback doing the kinds of things he did against the Browns, that process of proving they belong will happen. And then things could really get interesting.

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