PITTSBURGH — Safety Mike Adams thought the Browns “had ’em” after his fourth-quarter interception.
Receiver Mohamed Massaquoi had “no doubt” the Browns were going to capitalize on the pick and score the winning touchdown in front of the giant ketchup bottle.
Receiver/kick returner Joshua Cribbs “felt the fear the Steelers had.”
None of it mattered.
The Browns did a lot of good things Thursday in front of a prime-time, national-television audience and they pushed the Steelers to the brink.
But when the plays had to be made, the Steelers made them.
That’s what they do.
The Browns walked out of Heinz Field with yet another loss to their biggest rival.
That’s what they do.
Steelers 14, Browns 3.
“It’s our rivalry, it’s Pittsburgh,” said Cribbs, who missed almost three quarters with a groin injury. “We really wanted it. So we were on our game. It almost happened.
The game was decided in the final 3:19. The Browns trailed 7-3 but reached the 5-yard line with the chance to go ahead. The offense was inspired by a fourth-quarter goal-line stand from the defense, and Adams’ interception provided hope.
Then came the heartbreak.
Quarterback Colt McCoy was intercepted in the corner of the end zone by William Gay when he tried to force the ball to Mohamed Massaquoi and underthrew it.
“Gay made a great play on the ball,” Massaquoi said. “You never want to see the ball picked, especially when it’s going to you.”
The Steelers (10-3) quickly put the game away when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit receiver Antonio Brown with a quick completion near the right sideline. Cornerback Joe Haden slipped and Brown outran Adams and Haden for a 79-yard touchdown to end the unexpected suspense.
McCoy had been dazed five plays before the interception and left the game for two plays. Steelers linebacker James Harrison hit McCoy in the facemask with the crown of his helmet as McCoy dumped a pass to running back Montario Hardesty.
Harrison was penalized 15 yards for unnecessary roughness. Last year in Pittsburgh, he knocked out Massaquoi with a hit to the head that drew a steep fine and was part of the NFL’s crackdown on hits to defenseless receivers.
“I don’t know if it’s his intention to hurt people,” Massaquoi said. “That’s his style of play.”
McCoy lay on the ground for a couple of minutes before walking off and being attended to by trainers on the sideline. Backup Seneca Wallace picked up a first down with a 13-yard out to tight end Evan Moore, moving the ball to the 5.
For the umpteenth time this season, McCoy showed incredible toughness as he returned to action. He entered the night with a sore knee, throwing elbow and throwing shoulder. He said he didn’t remember the hit from Harrison.
“Am I surprised Colt battled back and came back in? No,” Moore said.
McCoy’s willingness to battle is commendable, but he also made the backbreaking mistakes that have plagued his young career. He went 18-for-35 for 209 yards, two interceptions and a 46.0 rating. He’s 0-8 inside the AFC North and 6-15 overall as a starter.
He was glassy-eyed in the postgame locker room and said he was more worried about his left hand, which had a big gash on it from the Harrison play.
Coach Pat Shurmur was asked if he considered leaving Wallace in the game.
“Colt was fine to go back in,” said Shurmur, who lost his first game in the rivalry.
Cleveland has lost 15 of the last 16 against the Steelers and 21 of 23. It’s lost eight straight at Heinz Field.
The Browns entered the game ranked near the bottom in turnovers forced, but came up with three that kept Pittsburgh within reach. When linebacker Chris Gocong led the goal-line stand that featured four straight stops of running back Rashard Mendenhall, the Browns were in position to pull the upset.
“Terrific. Great stuff,” Shurmur said. “It’s not easy to do, to stop them on four plays that close.”
But the Browns still found a way to lose, and their offense was to blame. Cleveland opened and closed the game with drives that included first-and-goal from the 5, yet came away with only three points.
On third-and-inches on the opening drive, running back Peyton Hillis — 10 carries for 25 yards as he was limited by a hip strain — was stuffed for a 1-yard loss and Phil Dawson kicked a 20-yard field goal.
“You gotta get in the end zone early in the game and late in the game,” Shurmur said.
Roethlisberger was knocked out of the game with a lower left leg injury with 5:59 left in the first half. He was still limping badly at the start of the second half, but returned to the game and finished it.
He was in obvious pain and struggled to reach the running back for handoffs. But he made enough timely throws to complement a strong rushing game that attacked the Browns’ biggest weakness.
After the touchdown to Brown, Roethlisberger remained at the Pittsburgh 20-yard line, bent at the waist with his hands on his knees. He eventually stood up and pointed at the heavens.
He went 17-for-22 for 280 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 129.9 rating.
“He’s a warrior,” Adams said. “I knew he’d come back. It wouldn’t be right if he didn’t.”
Cleveland, which entered the game 14-point underdogs, played its two biggest rivals in a five-day span and went 0-2. The Ravens won 24-10 Sunday in Cleveland.
The Browns are 4-9 in Shurmur’s first year. They travel to Arizona on Dec. 18, before finishing the year at Baltimore and home for Pittsburgh.
Tight end Benjamin Watson and fullback Owen Marecic suffered their second concussions of the season and didn’t return. Rookie safety Eric Hagg hurt his eye and left the game.
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Steelers 14, Browns 3
Cleveland 3 0 0 0 — 3
Pittsburgh 7 0 0 7 — 14
Cle—FG Dawson 20, 9:22.
Pit—Cotchery 11 pass from Roethlisberger (Suisham kick), 6:12.
Pit—A.Brown 79 pass from Roethlisberger (Suisham kick), 2:52.
First downs 19 20
Total Net Yards 304 416
Rushes-yards 30-98 28-147
Passing 206 269
Punt Returns 3-29 0-0
Kickoff Returns 2-39 2-31
Interceptions Ret. 1-29 2-33
Comp-Att-Int 19-36-2 16-23-1
Sacked-Yards Lost 3-16 2-11
Punts 6-34.2 4-41.3
Fumbles-Lost 2-0 2-2
Penalties-Yards 6-54 12-97
Time of Possession 32:18 27:42
RUSHING—Cleveland, Ogbonnaya 2-31, Hillis 10-25, Hardesty 11-24, McCoy 6-15, Cribbs 1-3. Pittsburgh, Mendenhall 18-76, Redman 6-35, Wallace 1-21, Moore 3-15.
PASSING—Cleveland, McCoy 18-35-2-209, Wallace 1-1-0-13. Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger 16-21-1-280, C.Batch 0-2-0-0.
RECEIVING—Cleveland, Moore 4-55, Massaquoi 3-44, Cribbs 2-38, Little 2-25, Norwood 2-21, Smith 2-19, Watson 2-11, Hardesty 2-9. Pittsburgh, A.Brown 5-151, Wallace 4-57, Cotchery 2-33, Johnson 2-22, Miller 2-11, Ward 1-6.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—None.