By Tom Withers
Their horrendous start has long been forgotten, erased with an equally unexpected turnaround.
The Steelers are in contention, right back where they belong. The playoffs are possible.
Ben Roethlisberger threw touchdown passes to Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders and beat Cleveland for the 16th time as Pittsburgh, which opened the season with four straight losses, pushed deeper into the postseason picture with a 27-11 win over the Browns on Sunday.
The Steelers (5-6) have climbed back with a one-game-at-a-time philosophy that they’re not about to abandon.
“I’m not looking around,” Roethlisberger said, quickly dismissing any postseason speculation. “It’s all about focus. This game is over now. That’s all we can control.”
Roethlisberger connected on a 41-yard TD pass to Brown in the first half, and hit Sanders on a 4-yarder in the third quarter for the Steelers, who only have a few days to get ready for a Thanksgiving game at Baltimore — a matchup that didn’t look as if it would be very meaningful a few weeks back.
Roethlisberger finished 22 of 34 for 217 yards and improved to 16-1 against the Browns (4-7), who have lost five of six and seen a promising season turn into yet another miserable one.
An Ohio native, Roethlisberger relishes beating a team from his home state.
“It’s homecoming, you know, a home game,” he said. “So it does feel good.”
The Browns (4-7) lost starting quarterback Jason Campbell to a concussion in the third quarter when he was sacked by cornerback William Gay. Campbell was struck in the helmet by Gay and his head snapped back and banged the turf. He spent several moments flat on his back in the middle of the field, a symbolic moment for the Browns, who were smashed again by their AFC North rival.
In his first season, Browns coach Rob Chudzinski has cycled through three starting quarterback because of injuries. He had to play Brandon Weeden again and may have to start the beleaguered second-year QB next week against Jacksonville.
Weeden got booed when he came off the bench and things got tougher for him in the fourth, when Gay intercepted his pass and returned it 21 yards for a TD, giving the Steelers a 27-3 lead.
“You’ve just go to laugh at it,” Weeden said of the booing.
One bright spot for Cleveland was wide receiver Josh Gordon. He tied a team record with 14 receptions and set a club mark with 237 yards.
After losing to Minnesota on Sept. 29, the Steelers looked old, slow and a shell of themselves. Things didn’t look any better when they gave up 55 points and 610 yards to New England earlier this month.
But with three straight wins, they’re where they usually are when the schedule moves toward December.
“When we were 0-4, we knew we couldn’t get four straight wins in one week,” said rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, who gained 80 yards. “We had to chip away at it and take it one game at a time. Now we’re 5-6, so we’re just going to keep grinding and grinding.”
The Steelers have turned one of the NFL’s best rivalries into a laughable, one-sided affair, going 25-5 against the Browns since 1999.
Campbell’s scary injury has Cleveland’s season on a familiar slide. He was leveled on the blind-side blitz by Gay, who came in untouched and dislodged the ball. As the QB was sprawled on the ground near midfield, Pittsburgh’s Will Allen scooped the ball and returned it to the Cleveland 4.
As Campbell was checked by the Browns’ training staff, Roethlisberger came over and gave him a gentle tap on the helmet.
“That’s respect,” Roethlisberger said. “I respect him as a quarterback and as a player and a man so I just wanted to check on him.”
A wobbly Campbell was taken to the bench and examined before being helped onto a cart and driven to the locker room. Campbell’s head slumped as he was taken away.
One play after Campbell’s fumble, Roethlisberger tossed his TD pass to Sanders, giving the Steelers a 20-3 lead.
Pittsburgh spent the rest of the game running the clock, pinning the Browns deep and clearing out fans in FirstEnergy Stadium the way they almost always do. When the game ended, the Steelers were cheered as they walked toward their tunnel by a few hundred fans who couldn’t have imagined them saving this season following their terrible start.
It’s all in the past.
“I’m not looking back,” Roethlisberger said.
NOTES: Roethlisberger improved to 37-11 in starts against division foes. ... Steelers NT Steve McLendon injured his left ankle in the first half and didn’t return. He left on crutches afterward. ... Steelers CB Curtis Brown sustained a knee injury. Coach Mike Tomlin said both players will be evaluated Monday.