The Cleveland Browns continued in the playoffs with a 48-37 win that night, victorious over their fiercest rivals at Heinz Field.
The Steelers’ season ended there. Pouncey’s career ended there. For a moment, it seemed possible Roethlisberger’s could, too.
The Steelers appeared to reach a crossroads after that loss, and their path forward was uncertain.
“It was a long offseason,” defensive captain Cam Heyward said.
But 295 days later, Roethlisberger will arrive at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium as the Steelers’ quarterback (1 p.m. ET, CBS). He said that moment in January, as emotional as it was, didn’t make him consider retirement. And he said avenging that loss isn’t why he came back.
“I never like to lose a game,” he said Wednesday. “In the year, only one team ever ends the way they want to, but I wouldn’t say that they're the reason I came back.”
And that loss isn’t Roethlisberger’s primary focus in a week when the 39-year-old who grew up in Findlay, Ohio, could be playing in Cleveland for the last time after signing a contract in the offseason that will void after the 2021 season.
“As a competitor, you use lots of things to motivate you to go out and play,” he said. “But I'm not really sure if that's my leading factor this week.”
Roethlisberger hasn’t played against the Browns in Cleveland since a Week 1 tie in 2018, and he hasn’t won in Cleveland since Week 1 in 2017. A year ago, Mason Rudolph got the start in the Week 17 game, and in 2019, Roethlisberger was sidelined as he recovered from season-ending elbow surgery.
With the added element of Halloween for Sunday’s game, Roethlisberger will undoubtedly receive a vicious welcome from Browns fans.
“It's a challenge,” he said. “They're passionate. Any time your fans have a nickname, or an area has a nickname, it’s pretty cool. They like to get on us, and it's part of the game.
“Obviously, when you go there and you play well and you win, it has a little extra feeling of satisfaction. But it's not easy to play there.”
Cornerback Joe Haden, who spent seven seasons in Cleveland, knows plenty about the Dawg Pound. In January, Haden was at home in isolation after he tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the playoff game.
“I was physically good to go,” he said. “I had COVID. I didn’t have any symptoms. It was tough to just be in the basement, healthy, ready to go and can’t play. I’m really looking forward to getting back out there. I like playing against Cleveland.”
Missing the game last year, coupled with the loss, adds a little something extra to the rivalry for Haden.
“Ever since I got into the league, I’ve known they do not like each other, and it’s just a strong rivalry,” Haden said. “Them beating us in the playoffs last year just brings a little more added to it. I played for them, didn’t get to play in the game, so I want to get out there and play.”
Tight end Eric Ebron didn’t mince words when he talked about the motivation from the loss.
“They whooped our ass,” Ebron said Monday. “At our home. And sent us home. If y’all can’t get motivated for that, you probably shouldn’t be playing football.
“Any team that sends you home in your division, you better come with it.”
Mike Tomlin, though, downplayed the impact of the drubbing.
“I’m sure it comes up in some form or fashion, but not as a rallying cry or not as a focus of a meeting,” the coach said. “There are a lot of variables that are 2021 that should have our attention. We’ve got a lot riding on this game. We're going to play a really good team in their venue. It's 2021. Last year's game means nothing to [rookie running back] Najee [Harris], it means nothing to [rookie center Kendrick Green], it means nothing to [rookie tackle] Dan Moore [Jr.], it means nothing to [rookie tight end] Pat [Freiermuth], etc., etc.
“You’ve just got to acknowledge that, in the game of football, things change year in and year out and seemingly low-hanging fruit is oftentimes irrelevant to some of the people in the room. We don't spend a lot of time talking about old stories or old news.”
Last year’s wild-card win didn’t springboard the Browns to the Super Bowl, or even set them up for a stellar start to the 2021 season, but it did something to heighten an AFC North rivalry that was fairly one-sided while the Browns slogged through dismal seasons.
“I don't know that this rivalry ever went away,” Roethlisberger said. “Rivalries are great. AFC North football, there are always going to be rivals and there are going to be great games. I think I'm just glad that I'm not the most winning quarterback in their stadium history anymore.”