Once they stopped dropping the ball and throwing it to the Browns, the Pittsburgh Steelers realized something bigger than a win could be slipping away.
The Steelers committed eight turnovers — five fumbles and three interceptions by quarterback Charlie Batch — to make things easier on Cleveland and the Browns did just enough for a 20-14 win on Sunday over their bitter rivals to put Pittsburgh's playoff hopes in a pickle.
"We have to get ourselves together in a hurry and figure out a way to get some wins," Steelers tight end Heath Miller said.
With their second loss in a row inside the AFC North, the Steelers (6-5) dropped into a tie with Cincinnati and now trail first-place Baltimore by three games. Pittsburgh visits the Ravens next Sunday in what boils down to a must-win situation for a team that looked anything but postseason primed against the Browns (3-8).
By next week, Pittsburgh could have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back from injury. But even Big Ben might not be able to straighten out these Steelers, who converted just 1 of 9 third downs, rushed for 49 yards and did little right after linebacker Lawrence Timmons returned an interception 53 yards for a touchdown just 71 seconds after the opening kickoff.
All four Pittsburgh running backs fumbled once, and it was fitting that Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders committed the final turnover with a fumble on a last-play, desperation lateral.
"If you turn the ball over the way we did, you're not going to beat anybody, that's just the reality in the National Football League," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who has rarely looked as upset with his team. "I'm surprised it was that close given the turnover situation."
Batch, forced to start because of rib injuries to Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich, finished 20 of 34 for 199 yards. The 37-year-old third-stringer wasn't the reason Pittsburgh lost, but he didn't make enough plays to shake the Steelers from their funk.
"I have to put it on my shoulders," Batch said. "We had a chance to win, actually two, and I turned it over. Can't do that. I made some bad throws. We had all the fumbles, and yet we still had a chance to win, that's the crazy part."
The Browns, though, hung on and finally came out on the winning side of a close game. In beating the Steelers for just the second time in 18 games, Cleveland improved to 5-23 against Pittsburgh since 1999.
"I said to the rookies, 'You're all 1-0 against Pittsburgh,'" said Browns coach Pat Shurmur, who faces an uncertain future in Cleveland. "You play a rivalry and you're trying to get some traction. This game we finished. I think that's an important message as we move forward."
The victory came with a price.
Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden sustained a concussion in the final minutes, requiring backup Colt McCoy to come in and finish off a victory Cleveland fans — and new owner Jimmy Haslam — savored as much as any in years.
After throwing an incompletion, Weeden fell awkwardly and appeared to hit his head on the leg of teammate Joe Thomas as he went down. Weeden was then replaced by McCoy, who suffered a serious head injury late last season in Pittsburgh when he was laid out on a vicious hit by Steelers linebacker James Harrison.
McCoy didn't throw a pass after coming on in relief, and it's too early to know if he'll be needed next week at Oakland. If he must play, the Browns are confident that McCoy, who lost his starting job when the Browns drafted Weeden, can get the job done.
"If it comes down to it, we've got Colt and Colt makes smart decisions and Colt's been ready to play all year," said running back Trent Richardson, who rushed for 85 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter with a 15-yard run.
Cleveland's win also sent president Mike Holmgren out on a winning note. After the game, the Browns announced that it was the final game for the 64-year-old Holmgren, who has said he may return to coaching. The Browns went only 12-32 under Holmgren, but at least one of the wins came against the dreaded Steelers — now in trouble.
Several holding penalties also hurt Pittsburgh and wide receiver Plaxico Burress, re-signed during the week because of injuries to Antonio Bryant and Jerricho Cotchery, did not catch a pass.
The Steelers didn't make any excuses. It's not their way.
"We aren't going to have any team meetings, not going to sit in a circle and sing 'Kumbaya' or anything like that," safety Ryan Clark said. "We are going to do what we do after we win a game — go back to work and figure out a way to play better."
Phil Dawson kicked field goals of 28 and 32 yards for the Browns. He has made 27 in a row since last season, tying his team record.
Cleveland's fourth takeaway set up Richardson's TD run.
Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown, picked on during the Steelers' late scoring drive in the first half, intercepted Batch at Pittsburgh's 31.
Two completions by Weeden got it to the 10, and after a false-start penalty, Richardson burst up the middle, ran through some arm tackles and scored to make it 20-14 with 5:25 left in the third — the game's final points.
"To finish a close game like that is big for us," Richardson said.
NOTES: Steelers rookie RB Chris Rainey scored on a 1-yard run after being stopped cold at the goal line. ... Steelers LB LaMarr Woodley left in the first half with a left ankle injury and did not return. OL Mike Adams hurt his left ankle in the second half. Tomlin said both would be evaluated Monday. ... The Browns are the first team to forced eight turnovers since New Orleans against St. Louis on Oct. 28, 2001. ... Tomlin dropped to 9-2 against the Browns. ... Holmgren will meet with Cleveland's media for the final time Monday.
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