Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver DeMarcus Ayers (15) gets past Cleveland Browns strong safety Briean Boddy-Calhoun (20) for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. (Don Wright/AP Photo)
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PITTSBURGH -- The setting surrounding the Week 17 AFC North matchup between the Steelers and Browns Sunday afternoon didn't have the makings of a marquee event to begin with.
The Steelers -- having clinched No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs the previous week -- held out Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Maurkice Pouncey to rest before the postseason. The primary goal was just to escape the meaningless game on New Years Day without any drastic injuries. A win over a hapless Browns team with one prior win on its resume would be nice, too, but not a necessity.
The starless Steelers (11-5) remained relatively healthy and emerged victorious, however, as Landry Jones, starting in place of Roethlisberger, connected with Cobi Hamilton for a 26-yard touchdown with 2:54 left in overtime to secure a 27-24 win over the Browns (1-15) in the regular season finale.
"Elements of that were ugly to be quite honest with you," coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. "But there were other elements of it that were quite beautiful. I think that when we took the challenge of pursing victory this week, and the framework in which we had in terms of who was available, I anticipated some of the nuggets that we saw."
Jones ended with three touchdowns after overcoming an early 14-0 deficit, and improved to 1-1 as a starter this season. Jones connected on pair of 11-yard scores to DeAngelo Williams and Demarcus Ayers in the second and fourth quarter before his ultimate game-winning touchdown to Hamilton. He ended 24 of 37 for 277 yards and a 103 QB rating.
"Landry Jones stayed in the fight and did a great job of leading us down the stretch," said Tomlin. "He had a no-blink attitude and demeanor, and it was good."
Williams rushed for 67 yards on 23 attempts with an additional one-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter. Eli Rogers caught a team-high six passes for 61 yards, and Hamilton ended with four receptions for 54 yards.
The Steelers fielded a majority of their defensive starters, but still gave up a whopping 437 total yards to the Browns and their 31st ranked offense. Quarterback Robert Griffin III threw for two touchdowns -- his first two of the 2016 season -- to post his first multi-TD game since 2013. Griffin III finished 29 of 40 for 232 yards.
Cleveland running back Isiash Crowell rushed for 152 yards on 19 carries. The Browns converted 27 first downs, went 8 for 15 on third down attempts. The Steelers gave up four sacks and committed nine penalties for 43 yards.
The Steelers will return to Heinz Field next weekend for the opening round of the playoffs against the Dolphins.
With the Browns holding a 14-7 lead near the end of the third quarter, Cleveland cornerback B. Boddy-Calhoun intercepted Jones and returned it 68 yards for what looked to be a pick-six. That was, until, Darrius Heyward-Bey came flying out of nowhere to make an extra effort play that ultimately saved the game for the Steelers, by keeping them within striking distance to come back and win. Heyward-Bey stripped Boddy-Calhoun at the last second as he approached the goal line and caused the ball to roll through the back of the end zone to result in a touchback. "We threw the pick and I understood that if they score this touchdown, they are going to up 21-7 and we can't have that," Heyward-Bey said. "I looked at the pylon, did the best that I could and made a play."
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR
Since returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for a latter portion of the season, Heyward-Bey has assumed his usual heavy workload on special teams. The forced fumble was an example of the extra nicknack plays he's capable of making, and the type of team-first attitude he displays on a regular basis.
"It was huge," Mike Mitchell said. "I immediately went up to Kevin Colbert after that. You've got to love football to make a play like that. That wasn't no accident right there. That's a guy in his eight year, predominantly plays special teams. An interception, when every guy could have gave up, fighting his ass off to the very end to pluck that ball out, cause a touchback and take 7 points off the board for them and then give us an opportunity. That's the type of team that we have. You've got a guy that's in his eighth year that was a top-ten draft pick. I know that he's not in the role that he would love to be in, but he's doing what his job is required and he's doing in it in a big way for us."
In addition to the forced fumble, Heyward-Bey came down with a 46-yard reception with 6:54 left in the fourth quarter that led to Ayers' touchdown reception. It was Heyward-Bey's lone catch of the afternoon, but his two timely plays made the ultimate different in the Steelers departing Heinz Field on a seven game win streak.
Jones' game-winning touchdown to Hamilton came on most simplest of playcalls the duo could ask for, a route in which any quarterback and receiver practices on a regular basis. "He just had a go-ball in single coverage out there, so I put it up and let him make a play on it," Jones said. A go-ball, like its name, is simply a deep ball with air under it near the sideline that allows the receiver to make a play on it. It was Hamilton's second touchdown of the season, and his first since the Miami game in Week 6, but nothing that Hamilton says will rank towards the top of the most memorable moments in his career. "It happened so fast," he said. "I don't know. I don't think so. It just felt like a catch. It felt normal."
Hamilton, Rogers and Ayers emerged as the three key pieces to the Steelers offense without Bell and Brown in the lineup. The same players that were once either on the Steelers' practice squad or scout team have now made a significant impact in the final two games down the stretch. "This is a big confidence booster for all the young guys. All the guys that have came and made their way from the practice squad. It just shows how much we’ve grown up. Our development, the coaches have been able to do with us. The pressure they put on us. The competition level they bring to practice. It’s to make us perform in these situations." Ayers broke down his 11-yard fourth quarter touchdown, the first of the former seventh-round pick's career, in which he broke free on a crossing route over the middle. "I felt like it was man coverage but I didn’t really know. Once I felt my man chasing me, I made a great move up the field, kind of stacked him and was able to get the rub from (Rogers)," he said. "Credit to him, he made a great pick for me and I was able to feel my man and run away from him. Landry made a great throw and put me in position to turn up and go score."
The Browns scored 24 points while managing season highs in total yards (437) and rushing yards (231) against the Steelers defense without Stephon Tuitt and James Harrison playing. Both should be back next week when they face the Dolphins and running back Jay Ajayi, who formerly rushed for 202 yards against them in Week 6. "They had a good running game against us," Lawrence Timmons said. "It's going to be a big test for us, especially given what we gave up today. It's going to be a good test for us and we need to stand up to the challenge and be the defense that we want to be." The unit has vastly improved since the Week 6 loss, as it ranked 9th in the league in total defense leading into the afternoon.
Jarvis Jones started in Harrison's plays and flashed some bright spots. He finished with three tackles and a forced fumble in his first significant game action since being demoted in Harrison's favor earlier this season. The forced fumble was a breath of fresh air for the former first-round pick in an underperforming season. "I’ll take it," he said. "I need it. Just a great play defensively anyways. I think it was a collective of people around the ball. I think Bud ended up coming with it. Just a great defense stand in the red zone for us." Tomlin didn't think the game did anything for Jones' confidence, however. "Ultimately, it's something to build upon," he said. "But I doubt that Jarvis is lacking confidence, to be honest with you. He just hadn't made enough plays for he or for me."
Several players credited the Steelers' late-game execution, such as keeping Cleveland out of the end zone on a first and goal from the 2-yard line in the fourth quarter, to their head coach. The same coach that, just last week, was criticized as more of a cheerleader than a good coach by former Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw. Speaking on the subject for the first time, Mitchell didn't hold back in his response to the criticism. "It’s absurd," he said. "He’s the best football coach in the game in how he puts us in situations and prepares us. A lot of stuff isn’t even on the field. It’s about off the field. What type of man are you. What you value. Those types of things. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had, and that’s all I’m going to say about that moving forward."
Javon Hargrave left the game to be evaluated for a concussion and did not return.
Ricardo Mathews left the game with a right ankle injury and did not return.
BY THE NUMBERS
4: Tomlin tied John Madden in wins, 103.
5: Tomlin has led the Steelers to 11 regular season wins five times in his 10-year tenure.
7: The Steelers have won seven consecutive games in the regular season for the first time since 2004.
16: This is the 16th time the Steelers have won at least 11 games in a season.
21: The Steelers swept the regular season series with the Browns for the 21st time in franchise history.
1,000: Jones eclipsed 1,000 passing yards in his fourth career start, now with 1,071.
"We're punching a ticket to get all the way to the dance. We got our ticket. Now we’ve just got to handle business." --RT Marcus Gilbert on the upcoming playoffs
AFC Wild Card: vs. Miami Dolphins
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
The Steelers will have a rematch with the Miami Dolphins after an ugly 30-15 loss in Week 6 that sparked their four-game losing skid. Though this time around, the Steelers are a vastly improved team on both sides of the ball. The current seven-game win streak has been paced by Le'Veon Bell, who has rushed for 1,268 in 12 games this season, with six 100-plus rushing efforts over his last seven games. Defensively, the Steelers rank 9th in the NFL in total defense, including sixth against the rush. "I think we're significantly better, but I think people are going to form their (own) opinions," Mitchell said. "I just believe in the guys who are working their butts off every day." At the end of the day, we're going to find out how here real soon how big of an improvement we've made and we're looking forward to that." The Dolphins will likely be without starting QB Ryan Tannehill due to a knee injury, which then would indicate Matt Moore as the starter. Moore has gone 2-1 as a starter with wins over the Jets and Bills before falling to the Patriots this week.