PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger looked for the last time into the Heinz Field stands peppered with No 7 jerseys bearing his name and tried to soak in a moment as inevitable as it was unimaginable for most of his career.
This is the end for the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback.
And rather than fight it, the player defined by his ability to fend off defenders with his left arm and make game-changing throws with his right embraced it.
Roethlisberger did a victory lap following a 26-14 win over Cleveland on Monday night that kept his team’s faint playoff hopes alive. He hugged team president Art Rooney II. He unsuccessfully fought back tears. Then he grabbed the hand of his wife Ashley and their three children and walked into the tunnel and out of sight.
His on-field performance — 24 of 46 for 123 yards, with a touchdown and a pick — was remarkable only for its inefficiency. He became the first QB since at least 1950 to win a game with more than 40 attempts for fewer than 150 yards, according to STATS.
But the numbers — as has often been the case during an 18-year career that includes two Super Bowl victories — were beside the point.
Roethlisberger played. The Steelers won. And so it goes.
Pittsburgh (8-7-1) will finish at .500 or better for the 18th straight season, or every year since the Steelers selected Big Ben with the 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft.
“That’s been the story of my career,” he said. “Not always pretty, but we find a way.”
The Steelers need a win over Baltimore next week and a loss by Indianapolis to lowly Jacksonville to make the postseason for the 12th time with Roethlisberger, a possibility he admits is slim.
Still, it exists, and that’s thanks in large part to rookie Najee Harris, who ran for a career-best 188 yards and a touchdown, and linebacker T.J. Watt, who sacked Baker Mayfield four times to give him 21 1/2 on the season, one short of the NFL record set by Hall of Famer Michael Strahan in 2001.
Yet the night belonged to Roethlisberger. The “Let’s Go Ben!” chants started immediately after he was introduced, replaced by “Thank You Ben!” after the 39-year-old took a knee in the final seconds to seal his 26th win over the team that bypassed the Ohio native in the draft nearly two decades ago.
“This is home, you know?” Roethlisberger said. “And I just, I know I was born in Ohio, but I live here and I’ll always be here.”
The only people more eager for Roethlisberger to retire than his family might be the Browns. Cleveland (7-9) — which was eliminated from postseason contention on Sunday — fell to 3-26-1 when facing Roethlisberger.
The Browns inexplicably put the game on Mayfield’s tattered shoulders rather than feeding running back Nick Chubb against the NFL’s worst rush defense. Chubb ran 12 times for 58 yards while Mayfield threw 37 passes, completing just 16, for 185 yards with two touchdowns and two picks.
“If anyone questions how much I want it, turn on this tape,” Mayfield said. “I kept swinging. That’s who I am. That’s who I’ve always been.”
Mayfield plans to have surgery on his ailing left shoulder soon, though his erratic season made his long-term outlook murky for a team where instability at the position has been the norm for decades.
Things are different in Pittsburgh.
Roethlisberger was 22 when he took over for an injured Tommy Maddox in Week 2 of his rookie season. He never let go, leading the franchise to an era of success that nearly rivaled the Super Steelers of the 1970s.
Roethlisberger finally admitted this week that “all signs” were pointing to his 18th season being his last. His tank might be running low, but it’s not empty, and he showed flashes — briefly, anyway — of his “Ben being Ben” prime.
A shoulder fake here. A step up in the pocket there. The feet don’t move as fast as they used to. His arm doesn’t deliver with the precision of the past. The field-stretching heaves have been largely replaced by dinks and dunks designed in part to protect him behind an offensive line that isn’t nearly as talented as the groups he led to the postseason with regularity.
Yet if there’s been one constant during Roethlisberger’s career, it’s been his mastery of the Browns.
Roethlisberger’s last win over Cleveland provided a small measure of revenge less than a year after he threw four interceptions in a first-round home playoff loss to the Browns last January.
That night was supposed to be the launching point for Cleveland heading into 2021. But injuries and inconsistent play from Mayfield among others will force the Browns to watch the playoffs from home for the 18th time in the last 19 years.
Not so for Pittsburgh, which heads into the finale of the NFL’s first 17-game season with something to play for.
“We’ve got another game,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve got to keep fighting.”
Same as it ever was.
Browns: Lost CB Greedy Williams in the first half to a shoulder injury and LB Sione Takitaki to a shoulder injury in the second half. CB Denzel Ward exited in the third quarter with a groin issue, further depleting a secondary already missing starting safeties Ronnie Harrison and John Johnson.
Cleveland: Wraps up the season at home on Sunday against AFC North champion Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh: Looks to sweep Baltimore for the second straight season on Sunday while watching the score in Jacksonville.