PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers spent the second half of the season digging their way out of a deep hole, but they finally encountered one obstacle they couldn’t overcome.
The out-of-town scoreboard at Acrisure Stadium.
Just as the clock hit zero to finish off a 28-14 victory over Cleveland on Sunday, Pittsburgh’s slim but for weeks seemingly zombielike playoff chances vanished when the Miami Dolphins kicked a late field goal and tacked on a safety to beat the New York Jets and earn the AFC’s seventh and final postseason spot.
The Steelers wanted a chance at carrying the momentum they’ve built over the last two months into next week’s wild-card round. Instead, they’ll spend Monday cleaning out their lockers and pointing toward 2023.
“I think it will take a little bit of time to kind of understand and come to terms with it because I feel like we were starting to play some really (darn) good football,” Pittsburgh outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “But that’s the business. We didn’t get it done this year.”
Not after a 2-6 start that included Watt tearing his left pectoral in Week 1 and missing seven games and rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett enduring a rocky indoctrination into the NFL.
Pittsburgh put together a solid second half as Pickett learned on the job, going 7-2 after its bye week to assure coach Mike Tomlin of a record 16th straight non-losing season.
Tomlin has coached 258 regular season games with the Steelers. His teams have been mathematically alive for the playoffs in 257 of them, including a rousing finale against the Browns in which they sacked Deshaun Watson seven times and picked him off twice.
The help Pittsburgh needed to sneak into the postseason, however, didn’t materialize.
“When you leave it to other teams, anything can happen,” said cornerback Levi Wallace, who picked off Watson late in the first half to set up a field goal by Chris Boswell that gave the Steelers a lead they would not relinquish.
Cleveland was hoping to sweep the Steelers for the first time since 1988 and finish ahead of them in the standings for the first time since 1989. Instead, the Browns (7-10) couldn’t protect Watson and wound up at the bottom of the AFC North while losing at least 10 games for the 17th time since the franchise re-entered the league in 1999.
“It’s tough to win seven games and finish the season like that,” said Watson, who went 3-3 as a starter after serving an 11-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. “We’ve got to reflect on the season, watch the tape. There might be changes.”
While Browns coach Kevin Stefanski is expected to return, he might have to shake up his staff. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ job could be in jeopardy as the unit was inconsistent overall and awful against the run, even with Myles Garrett — whose 16 sacks tied his own club record — having another spectacular season.
Watson connected on 19 of 29 passes for 230 yards with two touchdowns and the two interceptions. Nick Chubb ran for 77 yards and caught a touchdown pass to join Jim Brown as the only players in Browns history to exceed 1,500 yards rushing in a season.
“That locker room fought like crazy,” Stefanski said. “We got guys that wanted to put everything into this one.”
Maybe, but it didn’t look like it at times.
The Steelers ran for 148 yards — including 84 yards and a touchdown by Najee Harris — and Pickett overcame a bumpy start to complete 13 of 29 for 195 yards and a touchdown. Pittsburgh ran off 20 straight points — 10 of them directly after interceptions of Watson — after spotting Cleveland an early touchdown.
The Browns drew within 20-14 on a 2-yard flip from Watson to Chubb with 10:20 to go. The Steelers responded with a 14-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard plunge by fullback Derek Watt with 4:39 to play.
Cleveland’s last two plays of the season ended with Watson on his back.
Yet Pittsburgh’s postgame celebration lasted as long as it took for the Steelers to glance at the scoreboard.
“We wanted a shot at the playoffs, but didn’t work out that way,” Pickett said. “So, a little bit of mixed feelings.”
The Browns fired former quarterback and Ohio native Bernie Kosar from the club’s pregame radio broadcast for violating NFL policy by placing a bet on a game. Kosar said earlier in the week he bet on the Browns to beat the Steelers. Ohio made sports betting legal on Jan. 1.
“We understand what Bernie means to this community and our history,” the team said in a statement Sunday night, “but as team contracted personnel hired to provide content on our media platforms his bet was a violation of NFL rules and we must adhere to all NFL policy.”