PITTSBURGH – The adrenaline had long since worn off by the time Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger slowly — very slowly — trudged toward his locker following the Steelers' 14-3 win over Cleveland on Thursday night.
As he talked to reporters, his sprained left ankle heavily taped, all Roethlisberger could think about was the chance to sit down.
"I feel like my ankle is about to explode," he said. "I'm ready to get off it."
The hard-earned rest came after he added to his growing resume as one of the league's most rugged players.
Roethlisberger passed for 280 yards and two scores while playing the second half on basically one leg as the Steelers (10-3) kept the pressure on Baltimore in the battle for the AFC North title.
"The guy is one of the toughest competitors in this game," Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel said. "He plays hurt. He's got a broken thumb, who knows what's wrong with his ankle? But we're a very good team with him behind center."
Just a very banged up one.
Roethlisberger will have an MRI exam on Friday to determine the extent of the damage, though he's optimistic he'll play when Pittsburgh travels to San Francisco on Dec. 19. Center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) and defensive end Ziggy Hood (groin) will spend the weekend in treatment after a critical but costly victory, one that made up for in grit what it lacked in glamour.
"There's no such thing as an ugly win," Hood said.
Not this time of year.
The Steelers beat the Browns (4-9) for the 15th time in the last 16 meetings despite a pair of red zone turnovers and getting stuffed on four downs at the goal line in the fourth quarter.
Roethlisberger made sure the miscues didn't matter, hitting Antonio Brown for a 79-yard touchdown with 2:52 remaining to give Pittsburgh its eighth win in its last nine games.
"I was glad (Brown) scored because I wouldn't have been able to make it down there if we had to run another play," Roethlisberger said with a laugh.
Cleveland had its chances.
Colt McCoy passed for 209 yards, but he also threw a pair of interceptions in dropping to 0-8 against division rivals as a starter. This loss might have been the most painful. He completed 18 of 35 passes but also took a beating, including a shot from Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison in the fourth quarter that left him momentarily dazed.
The Browns were driving in Pittsburgh territory with less than 6 minutes left when McCoy tucked the ball under his arm as if to run. He pulled up as Harrison approached and flipped a short pass to Montario Hardesty just before Harrison smashed into him. It was a helmet-to-helmet hit, and Harrison was flagged for roughing the passer.
McCoy laid on the field for several moments before making his way off. He refused to say whether he felt Harrison's hit was a cheap shot, but acknowledged that "it got me for a minute."
Harrison, who has faced stiff fines in the past for hits against defenseless players, believes he didn't do anything wrong.
"From what I understand, once the quarterback leaves the pocket, he's considered a runner," Harrison said. "All the defenseless(ness) and liberties that a quarterback has in the pocket are gone and you can tackle him just as he's a running back. The hit wasn't late, so I really don't understand why it was called."
Seneca Wallace filled in, leading the Browns to the Pittsburgh 5 before McCoy returned.
Though he insisted he was "good enough to go back in the game," McCoy didn't exactly play like it. He was flagged for intentional grounding on his first play back to push the ball back to the Pittsburgh 16, then tried to hit Mohamed Massaquoi in the end zone on the next snap, but Pittsburgh's William Gay easily stepped in front of it for an interception.
"I just didn't get enough on it, underthrew it and their guy made a nice play and that was basically the game," McCoy said.
And the season for the Browns, who are assured of a losing record for the fourth straight year.
McCoy's teammates were hardly blameless. Cleveland receivers dropped several passes and running back Peyton Hillis managed just 25 yards on 10 carries.
"You can look at the raw yardage and say, 'Well, I don't know what kind of performance it was,'" Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur said. "But we kept them out of the end zone until that last big pass. There's some things we can build on."
The Browns are already thinking about next year. Not the Steelers. Their season appeared to be in jeopardy after Roethlisberger took a vicious hit in the second quarter.
Yet Roethlisberger's recovery kept Pittsburgh alive for a division title and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
"You can't say enough about our quarterback," Brown said. "It's amazing to play with a guy like that who exemplifies that type of toughness day in and day out. His finger, his ankle, all sorts of things but the guy never lays it down."