Ben Roethlisberger threw three short touchdown passes, and the Steelers avoided their first losing season in nearly a decade with a 24-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Antonio Brown, Leonard Pope and Plaxico Burress scored for the Steelers (8-8), who mustered enough energy in a meaningless game to turn away the Browns. Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense forced four turnovers as the Steelers won for just the second time in the last six weeks, a slide that knocked them out of the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Cleveland's third-string quarterback, Thaddeus Lewis, passed for 204 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his first NFL start. But the Browns (5-11) dropped their third straight in what is likely coach Pat Shurmur's final game on the sideline.
The overhaul in Cleveland is already underway. New owner Jimmy Haslam pushed out team president Mike Holmgren shortly after taking charge, and it appears Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert could soon follow Holmgren out the door.
The Browns are 9-23 under Shurmur, the lone highlight a three-game winning streak spanning late November and early December that had some in Cleveland doing the complicated math necessary to put the Browns in the playoffs.
The optimism died just as quickly as it arose. Cleveland came back to earth in a 38-21 whipping at the hands of the Washington Redskins two weeks ago, followed by a blowout loss in Denver. Given a chance to sweep their biggest rivals for the first time in 24 years, the Browns instead lost to the Steelers in the regular-season finale for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
The changes in Pittsburgh won't be so widespread, but with an aging roster and salary cap issues, the Steelers figure to have a busy offseason for a franchise not used to heading home before New Year's Day.
The Steelers insisted they wanted to end a disappointing season with some dignity but hardly appeared interested during most of the first half. Playing in a rare meaningless finale, Pittsburgh sputtered in front of the smallest crowd in Heinz Field's 12-year history. The Steelers needed more than a quarter to pick up a first down as Roethlisberger struggled to stay comfortable.
The Browns, many of them auditioning for jobs next year, were a little livelier but no more effective.
Shurmur, injecting a bit of risk-taking in a tenure filled with playing it safe, called a fake punt from the Cleveland 25 early in the third quarter that Ray Ventrone turned into a 35-yard gain, equaling the team's longest run of the season.
The Browns tied it at 10 a few plays later when Lewis hit Little for a 7-yard touchdown pass.
That about did it for Cleveland. The Steelers responded with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Roethlisberger hitting Brown for a 9-yard score that put the Steelers back in front.
The Browns never really threatened again, though not for a lack of trying. Wide receiver Travis Benjamin fumbled while trying to fight for extra yardage in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh's Cortez Allen picked up the ball and returned it to the Cleveland 27. Six plays later, Roethlisberger found Burress for a 12-yard TD.
The veteran wide receiver — brought in over a month ago to shore up a depleted unit — took a pair of bows after his first scoring catch in a year. It was a fitting gesture considering the Steelers soon exited stage right. A season that brimmed with hope after a win over the Giants on Nov. 4 collapsed in a five-week span that included four costly losses.