PITTSBURGH - Ben Roethlisberger looked like a man who shouldn't be on a walk in the park, let alone playing in an NFL game.
The Steelers quarterback limped off the field Thursday night in the second quarter of the team's AFC North divisional game against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field, and took with him the hopes of the Steelers possibly winning another division title.
But Roethlisberger hobbled back onto the field in the second half and threw the decisive touchdown pass in lifting the Steelers to a nerve-wracking 14-3 victory over a team that has been a punching bag for Pittsburgh the last two decades.
Mirror photo by J.D.?Cavrich
Ben Roethlisberger limps off with an ankle injury in the first half, but he returned to play in the second half.
The victory helped save the Steelers from falling behind the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North divisional race.
"It hurt a lot,'' Roethlisberger said of the high-ankle sprain he sustained. "But I didn't want to let the guys down. I said, 'Let's give it a go.' I wanted to be there for the guys and fight for them.''
With 6 minutes remaining in the second quarter and the Steelers holding a 7-3 advantage, Roethlisberger dropped back to pass and did what he usually does, extending the play by scrambling in the backfield. He was then cut down at his legs by ex-Steeler Scott Paxson while getting hit from behind by the Browns' Brian Schaefering.
Roethlisberger was down on the field for several minutes, wincing in pain. He then was helped off the field, favoring his left ankle, and exited into the Steelers' locker room.
"I thought my leg was broken,'' Roethlisberger said. "It's the most painful injury I've ever had.''
The Steelers offense did little with backup Charlie Batch in control of two possessions before the half ended. The offense also took another blow when center Maurkice Pouncey left the game with an ankle injury.
Roethlisberger, though, surprisingly came back onto the field after halftime and sparked the offense. Although the Steelers were not able to build on their 7-3 lead because they kept having drives stopped short, Roethlisberger had one trick up his sleeve.
With 3 minutes, 5 seconds remaining in the game and the Steelers trying to run some clock, he dropped back to pass on second-and-9 and threw the ball to receiver Antonio Brown, who was in single coverage.
Brown caught the ball and got around Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden and raced to the end zone for an electrifying 79-yard touchdown that clinched the victory.
"I was not surprised by the call,'' Brown said. "We needed a spark.''
Roethlisberger had led the Steelers on two long drives that resulted in no points earlier in the second half. The first ended when Brown dropped a third-and-13 pass at the Cleveland 35-yard line, and the second came to a halt when the Browns stopped the Steelers, limited in their play calling due to Roethlisberger's immobility, on four straight running plays after getting a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line.
The Steelers were in Cleveland territory again in the fourth quarter, but Roethlisberger was intercepted by the Browns' Mike Adams at the 15-yard line.
"We worked against ourselves in many instances,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We negated some big plays with penalties. That stopped drives. We lost the turnover battle significantly, particularly since we turned the ball over in the red area.''
The Steelers did, though, get the biggest turnover when cornerback William Gay intercepted a Colt McCoy pass in the end zone with the Browns threatening to take the lead two plays before the touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Brown.
"I was really excited about our defensive effort, particularly our red zone defense,'' Tomlin said about a unit that was without linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) and later lost defensive end Ziggy Hood (groin). "It's the reason why we won the game.''
The Steelers were able to increase their record to 10-3 and momentarily hold the top spot in the AFC. They will now have 10 days off before meeting the 10-2 49ers in San Francisco at 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 19.
The Steelers then close with the 2-10 St. Louis Rams at home and the Browns again on the road. They have to finish at least one game ahead of the Ravens to win the AFC North or they'll end up being a wild card and will open the playoffs on the road.
The Browns didn't start Thursday's game like a 4-8 team by cruising down the field on their first possession with McCoy hitting a 33-yard pass to Evan Moore and a 25-yarder to Joshua Cribbs. McCoy had a 2-yard touchdown run overturned by an official review, and the Browns settled for a Phil Dawson field goal.
The Steelers, though, answered back in a hurry with Roethlisberger connecting with Mike Wallace for 22 yards, and Wallace running for a 21-yard end-around. Roethlisberger's 11-yard toss to Jerricho Cotchery put the Steelers ahead, 7-3.
The teams traded turnovers at the start of the second quarter with a Troy Polamalu interception for the Steelers sandwiched in between Hines Ward and Heath Miller fumbles before Roethlisberger's injury changed the complexion of the game.
Roethlisberger said he'll have an MRI on his ankle today.
"[Ben's] a warrior in every sense,'' Cotchery said. "He's going to go out there and lay it on the line for his teammates. And he came back in and did a great job for us.''