PITTSBURGH — From a perfect season to this?
The Pittsburgh Steelers were hammered on their own turf on Sunday night, bounced from the playoffs in the worst way.
Browns 48, Steelers 37.
The Browns? The team that had never beaten Ben Roethlisberger at Heinz Field? The franchise that hadn’t won a playoff game in 26 years?
Yeah, those Browns, derided a few days ago by Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who declared that he was glad to be playing Cleveland in the playoffs because, well, “the Browns is the Browns,” he said.
And the Steelers are the Steelers.
Had it not been for a remarkable comeback against the Colts in Week 16, this collapse would be reflected with a six-game losing streak.
Instead, Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu and Co., lost five of their final six games to finish out with a thud.
Remember when they were 11-0? The Steelers were the NFL’s last unbeaten team. In early December, after they beat the Ravens (sans Lamar Jackson, COVID-19), it seemed as if Pittsburgh were on the verge of claiming the top seed in the AFC playoffs and set up to host the AFC title game at Heinz Field.
Yet in getting the reality check from the Browns of all teams (Roethlisberger was 24-2-1 against Cleveland, including a 13-0 mark at Heinz Field before Sunday night), the Steelers can wallow in the notion that so much reflected with their latest playoff setback has been on display for weeks.
Even when they were streaking with the wins, questions persisted about their strength of schedule (or lack thereof), the lack of a running game and then, as time went on, the losses on defense. Turns out the talk from passionate fans about a “perfect season” was way premature.
In recent weeks, the defense has been pushed all over the place. It saved its worst game for the playoffs, when the tackling was just atrocious. The run defense got worse as the season progressed, but against the Browns the big plays allowed in the passing game — 40-yard TDs from Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb — was their glaring issue. And where was the pass rush? The Steelers finished the regular season as the NFL’s sack champion. Yet Baker Mayfield wasn’t sacked a single time.
Meanwhile, Roethlisberger was intercepted four times — this was after Maurkice Pouncey’s bad omen of a bad snap on the first offensive play of the game, which wound up in the end zone recovered by Karl Joseph for a quick Browns touchdown.
Roethlisberger, nearing 39, is getting close to the end. Games like Sunday night might make him think long and hard about the future.
After all, what was setting up to be so perfect — the potential for a legitimate Super Bowl run — turned out to be such a nightmare.
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