PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers did have something to
play for in an otherwise meaningless, get-it-over-with game --
Troy Edwards scored on a 32-yard fumble return to start the
second half and the Steelers, wrapping up their best regular season
in 23 years, and regaining some playoff momentum by beating the
Cleveland Browns 28-7 on Sunday.
Should Steelers' fans be worried about Jerome Bettis being rusty for the playoffs?
Maybe a little bit.
Bettis hasn't been hit for so long. You wonder about ball security and timing. He hasn't been going at full speed and he hasn't seen game speed. So he'll probably start out slowly.
But his legs will be fresh, and I expect that he'll get his rhythm back quickly.
ESPN.com's Vinny Cerrato was director of player personnel for the Redskins and 49ers.
In a game that meant little to the Steelers except it was
against their biggest rival, most starters played only a half, and
some -- Pro Bowl picks Jerome Bettis and Alan Faneca among them --
didn't play at all due to injuries.
But the Steelers (13-3), already guaranteed home-field advantage
throughout the AFC playoffs and a bye next weekend, clearly didn't
want to go into the postseason off consecutive losses to Cincinnati
and Cleveland. And they played that way, dominating the Browns
(7-9) even with their reserves.
Bettis' backups, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and college rushing
leader R.J. Bowers, each ran for touchdowns behind an offensive
line filled with backups. Backup quarterback Tommy Maddox, who has
played little since the XFL's one and only season, hit Bobby Shaw
with a 40-yard scoring pass after replacing Kordell Stewart in the
It was a major turnaround from the week before, when the
Steelers' league-leading defense yielded 544 yards in a 26-23
overtime loss at Cincinnati.
"We didn't want people talking about that for the next two
weeks, that's not how we wanted to go into the playoffs," wide
receiver Plaxico Burress said. "Now, we can go into the playoffs
on a high note."
And with one of the best records in team history. The Steelers
won 13 games in the regular season for only the second time,
although the league long played only a 12- or 14-game schedule. The
1978 Steelers were 14-2.
"It's hard to win 13 games in this league," offensive tackle
Wayne Gandy said. "Think about it. Even if you go 3-1 every month,
it's not good enough. But that's the way this team was all season --
all this team needed was a challenge, somebody telling us we
couldn't do something."
Burress and Hines Ward also went over the 1,000-yard receiving
mark early in the second half, then sat out the rest of the game.
Not even when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were starring on four
Super Bowl winners did the Steelers have two 1,000-yard receivers
in a season.
The Browns had some incentive -- their first .500 season since
rejoining the NFL in 1999 -- but they didn't play like it as they
lost their fifth in six games. Still, they improved significantly
from last season's 3-13.
"We came a long way, but we still have a lot to do," wide
receiver Kevin Johnson said, pointing to consecutive overtime
losses to Chicago and Pittsburgh that ultimately unraveled their
season. "If you look back at our season, we're just a couple of
plays away from 9 or 10 wins."
The Steelers limited the Browns to 173 yards -- 371 fewer than
Cincinnati got last week -- and pressured quarterback Tim Couch
(13-of-26, 150 yards) into throwing two interceptions. Couch also
was sacked four times.
"But we came a long, long way this year," Couch said. "Last
year, we didn't have any respect around the league, and we were
looked at as an easy win, a joke really."
The Browns' only score, Jamel White's 3-yard run late in the
first quarter, resulted from one of two tipped-pass interceptions
thrown by Stewart.
Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who had 98 yards on 17 carries, answered that
score with a 17-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter to
finish off a 73-yard drive.
The Steelers, upset by Cleveland the previous two seasons, took
the lead when Edwards grabbed Benjamin Gay's fumble and scored on
the kickoff starting the second half.
Bowers, who broke the NCAA all-divisions career rushing record
last season for Division III Grove City, later scored on a 21-yard
run. He spent most of the season on the Steelers' practice squad.
The Browns' three interceptions set a team record of
33, 10 by rookie Anthony Henry. ... The Steelers tied the 1994 club
record with 55 sacks. ... Bettis sat out a fifth consecutive game
and, because of the bye, will have a six-week layoff before the
Steelers play Jan. 19 or 20. ... A light but steady snow fell
throughout but did not accumulate on the grass field. ...
Fuamatu-Ma'afala was taken out with what was called a sore groin,
but he said the move was precautionary and he wasn't hurt. ... The
Steelers last were top-seeded in 1994, when they were upset by San
Diego in the AFC championship game.
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