CLEVELAND: As the rest of the AFC North prepares for the playoffs, Browns players will undergo physicals, attend meetings and pack their bags today. Most of them will leave town this week as they try to forget another dreadful season.
The Browns failed to finish strong in their regular-season finale, falling 13-9 to the Pittsburgh Steelers on a wintry Sunday evening at Cleveland Browns Stadium. The Browns ended Pat Shurmur’s first season as their coach with a six-game losing streak and a record of 4-12.
The Steelers (12-4) and the Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) will enter the postseason as wild-card teams. The Baltimore Ravens (12-4) secured the AFC North title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Browns went 0-6 in the division.
“We’ve got to win games, and I’m not at peace with [a 4-12 record],” Shurmur said. “We’ve got to win more, and that’s the bottom line.”
The Browns continued their recent trend of flirting with victory but failing to follow through. They lost their last three games by a combined 13 points, and their final defeat ensured they will have the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Their second loss of the season to the Steelers came down to the last play.
On second-and-10 at the Steelers’ 24-yard line, Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace threw a pass toward wide receiver Greg Little and tight end Jordan Cameron in the end zone. Little said he got a hand on the ball, but the pass fell incomplete among Little, Cameron and four Steelers defenders.
“It’s just a scrum for the ball at that point when the ball’s in the air,” Little said. “The ref is just gonna let the players win the game. I don’t expect any calls on that. It’s just go up and get it.”
The Browns blew several golden opportunities before the final play.
With 12:42 left in the fourth quarter, Steelers running back Isaac Redman fumbled, and Browns rookie strong safety Eric Hagg recovered. A subsequent facemask penalty by the Steelers gave the Browns the ball on Pittsburgh’s 43.
On second-and-12 at the Steelers’ 34, Wallace threw a pass behind wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who was wide open. Massaquoi dropped the ball, and the Browns punted two plays later.
The Browns, though, forced Redman to fumble again with 5:49 left in the fourth quarter. At the end of Redman’s 22-yard run, middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and cornerback Joe Haden wrapped up Redman, whose workload increased significantly because starting running back Rashard Mendenhall hurt his right knee in the first quarter and did not return. Strong safety Usama Young delivered a hit just before the ball came loose. Haden was credited with a forced fumble and a recovery at the Browns’ 39.
The Browns’ defense didn’t get much support in return for its solid production against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Co. Phil Dawson’s field goals of 26, 45 and 49 yards accounted for the Browns’ only points.
Despite a quiet day from Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, whose helmet-to-facemask hit Dec. 8 on quarterback Colt McCoy led to Wallace starting the final three games of the season, the offense struggled to maintain drives. The Browns were 4-of-14 on third downs.
“We need to have the attitude like, ‘All right, we’re close. We’re gonna win,’ ” Haden said. “Not, ‘We’re close. Who’s gonna mess it up?’ ”
The Steelers started the second half with a 13-play, 66-yard drive to tie the score 6-6 with 9:43 left in the third quarter. Shaun Suisham made a 29-yard field goal to cap the march after it stalled at the Browns’ 11.
Three plays later, Wallace’s pass intended for tight end Evan Moore was intercepted by Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu at the Browns’ 43 with 8:22 left in the third quarter. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds pressured Wallace as he threw.
Six plays later, the Steelers made the Browns pay. Redman, who had 19 carries for 92 yards, rushed for a 7-yard touchdown with 5:27 left in the third quarter, helping the Steelers establish a 13-6 advantage.
The Browns trimmed their deficit to 13-9 when Dawson made his 49-yard field goal with 1:59 left in the third quarter. But in typical fashion, they never could get over the hump.
Wallace’s incomplete pass at the end of the game reminded the Browns they aren’t in the same class as the rest of the AFC North. The Browns have a long way to go before they can qualify for the playoffs like each of their division foes has this season.
“It shows how tough our division is,” left tackle Joe Thomas said. But certainly we want to be one of those teams that’s making the playoffs, not the guys that are on the outside looking in.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com. Follow the Browns on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.