CLEVELAND – As the clock ticked slowly down to zero here at FirstEngery Stadium, the celebration began as the Pittsburgh Steelers exited the field.
There would be another game.
Late in the fourth quarter of the Steelers’ 28-12 win over the Cleveland Browns, fans near the Pittsburgh sideline let the team know what was happening across Lake Erie in Buffalo: Bills 22, Jets 17.
The Steelers were going to the playoffs.
It was something that seemed so certain three weeks ago and so distant last week after the Steelers’ loss at Baltimore that left them needing to win and get help from the Bills.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a relief,” said Cam Heyward. “All we could do was control what we could control. You’ve got to thank the Bills for doing their part. We can’t take this for granted. We have to make the most of this situation. We’re going to play some quality teams from here on out.”
And if they play like they did against Baltimore, or even Sunday in Cleveland, they won’t have a long stay in the postseason.
Nobody is more aware of that than quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The offense once again started slowly, with Antonio Brown fumbling – his first of the season – on Pittsburgh’s opening possession and Roethlisberger throwing an interception on the Steelers’ third possession. Chris Boswell missed a 48-yard field goal to end another first-half drive and Roethlisberger threw another interception on Pittsburgh’s opening possession of the second half.
That many mistakes against a good team will get the Steelers beat in the postseason. Against the hapless Browns? Not so much.
“We need to be perfect,” said Roethlisberger. “We need to be great. But we need to be that way as a team.”
Is this team capable of that?
Perfection? No. Greatness? Certainly.
We’ve seen them play great football in fits and spurts. What we haven’t seen much of is the Steelers do it offensively and defensively in the same game.
The offense remains a unit that can play with anyone in the league. When it's operating at peak performance, it’s as unstoppable as any group in the league. But if running back DeAngelo Williams is unable to play next week after leaving Sunday’s game with a sprained ankle, which had him in a walking boot, it’s a blow.
Already without Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers would be down to their third-string running back, Fitzgerald Toussaint. That would put even more pressure on Roethlisberger to carry this team. He’s certainly capable of doing that, but has made some throws in recent weeks that, quite frankly, are headscratchers for a quarterback with his talent.
@ All week long we heard that the Steelers wouldn’t be scoreboard watching in this game. But as it turned out, that wasn’t the case.
“It’s hard not to, especially in the second half,” admitted Heath Miller. “We were just trying to take care of our business and cross our fingers on the other game. It worked out for us.
“We’re happy to be in, but we’ve got to be more than that. We have to come in with a plan and looking to do something.”
A win would be good. The Steelers haven’t won a playoff game since the 2010 AFC Championship. It’s something the handful of guys who have had playoff success will try to drive home to their teammates this week.
“It’s going to be a conversation I have with the team to let them know,” said Roethlisberger. “The postseason is a different season. You’re going to have to do your best, throw out all of the records, throw out where you are playing. Everybody has to step up and be ready to go.”
@ Williams was in a walking boot after the game but was moving around well. In fact, Williams tested his ankle in the second quarter on the sideline before deciding not to return to the game.
The Steelers aren’t ready to write the veteran off for next weekend. If they do, Toussaint will suddenly be a guy everyone in Pittsburgh will know.
Williams’ injury brings to mind last year's playoffs when Bell went down in the regular season finale and was unable to play against the Ravens in the playoffs the following week. The Steelers had no proven backups to Bell after releasing LeGarrette Blount and were forced to sign Ben Tate and play him.
Toussaint doesn’t have a ton of experience. He has 18 carries for the Steelers this season after getting six with the Ravens last year, but at least he’s been on the roster all season, even if some of that was spent on the practice squad.
“Fitz, if he’s the guy, has knowledge and experience, more than we had last year,” said David DeCastro. “That should help us.”
@ When James Harrison intercepted Austin Davis at the goal line Sunday, the natural thought process went back to Super Bowl 43.
“I started having flashbacks,” said Heyward. “I wasn’t there when he did that at the Super Bowl, but I was like, ‘If he gets loose, I’m going to try and block for him.’ But he couldn’t get off a wide receiver, so we’re going to talk about that.”