CLEVELAND — Ben Roethlisberger looked up in the fourth quarter and noticed Pittsburgh fans twirling their Terrible Towels with delight.
The Steelers needed help, and they got it.
They’re still in the hunt for another Super Bowl title.
Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes, Pittsburgh’s defence dominated and the Steelers slipped into the AFC playoffs with a 28-12 win Sunday over the Cleveland Browns, who fired both coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer a few hours after the game.
Needing a win and Buffalo to knock off the New York Jets to make the post-season, the Steelers (10-6) got both. They will play at AFC North winner Cincinnati on Saturday night.
Leading comfortably in the closing minutes, Roethlisberger heard the crowd roar.
"I assumed there was a fight or a Steelers fan was beating up a Browns fan," he said with a laugh. "When I saw the towels getting out I kind of assumed what was going on. A lot of thanks to coach Ryan and the rest of the Bills and everybody in Buffalo. I know they’re excited about 8-8 and we’re excited they got us in."
Pittsburgh’s bumpy season — the Steelers overcame suspensions, injuries and a shocking loss last week in Baltimore — will continue with at least one more game. As usual, Roethlisberger did his part, throwing for 349 yards, including 187 to sensational wide receiver Antonio Brown, who had 13 catches and a TD.
"It’s been a tough, 16-week fight for us, but we’re where we want to be," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We’re where we need to be."
The Browns (3-13) ended another losing season in disarray. Owner Jimmy Haslam, who vowed in August that he wouldn’t "blow things up" did just that, ousting Pettine and Farmer after two disappointing seasons. Pettine went 10-22 during his two-year stint with Cleveland, losing 18 of his final 21 games.
Pettine wasn’t surprised by reports he was on his way out.
"I’m not into pleading," he said. "That to me is the resume: how hard the guys play, the effort that goes in, how hard we practice, what we do in meeting time, walkthrough, out on the practice field, how that carries over to the game field. I feel like we’ve done a lot of good things, but I’m the first one to tell you this is a pass/fail league, and the results aren’t there."
The Steelers sacked the Browns’ Austin Davis, starting in place of Johnny Manziel, seven times.
With Cleveland down just 17-12 in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh’s defence came up with the game’s biggest play as linebacker Lawrence Timmons dropped Davis, who fumbled inside the 10-yard line. Linebacker Arthur Moats recovered, and on the next play, Roethlisberger completed an 8-yard TD pass to Markus Wheaton.
All that was left was for the Bills to help out.
And when Buffalo completed its win over the Jets, the Steelers were back in the post-season. They hugged and high-fived on the sideline and thousands of Pittsburgh fans celebrated as the black-and-gold earned the right to play for the NFL championship in the Super Bowl’s golden anniversary season.
"It’s so gratifying," said Brown, who finished with 136 catches for 1,834 yards. "Sitting here as a Pittsburgh Steeler, that’s the expectation to make the playoffs and hoist the Lombardi Trophy. We continue to stay together no matter what people say."
The loss in Baltimore had severely damaged the Steelers’ playoff chances, but Roethlisberger made sure there wouldn’t be another costly misstep.
Big Ben finished 24 of 36 and improved to 19-2 over Cleveland.
There was one hiccup as Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams left in the first half with an ankle injury. Tomlin said Williams will be evaluated, and would not rule him out of the post-season.
Travis Coons kicked four field goals for the Browns, who are undergoing more change. Pettine had two years left on his contract, but Haslam and his wife, Dee, aren’t happy with the direction of their franchise. The Browns haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002, and have undergone five changes to their coach and GM since 2008.
Following the game, star tackle Joe Thomas said he might not want to return.
"We’ll have to see what happens," said the nine-time Pro Bowler.
Beyond the team’s many on-field issues, Manziel, who was sidelined with a concussion, continues to be a distraction. The polarizing QB was reportedly spotted in Las Vegas instead of being with his teammates for the finale, not a good look for the 23-year-old or the Browns.
NOTES: Brown broke his own team records for catches and yards. … Williams, wearing a walking boot, congratulated his teammates as they came off the field following the game. … Steelers LB James Harrison’s third-quarter interception was his first this season. … Browns WR Taylor Gabriel may need surgery after fracturing an orbital socket.