|Pat Shurmur can certainly empathize with Mike Tomlin. (AP)|
We'd first like to take this opportunity to apologize to the Steelers' Byron Leftwich. Twelve days ago, after Ben Roethlisberger went down with a shoulder and rib injury, we spent way too many words explaining why 37-year-old Charlie Batch should be the starter. Leftwich was serviceable in last Sunday night's loss to the Ravens, but he joined Big Ben on the bench with shoulder and rib injuries this week. Which meant that Batch would get his chance.
The lesson: Be careful what you ask for.
On Sunday against an underrated Browns defense, the Steelers had 15 offensive drives and -- wait for it -- eight turnovers in their 20-14 loss at Cleveland. Fun fact: Pittsburgh had seven turnovers in the 2011 Week 1 loss to the Ravens, but its performance on Sunday was the most in the league since Week 7 of the 2001 season, when the Rams also turned it over eight times.
(If you're looking for a moral victory, here ya go: Pittsburgh lost by just six points. So there's that. Unfortunately, moral victories don't count in the wild-card race.)
The Steelers got started early, fumbling on their first series, an "It was only a matter of time" fumble by running back Rashard Mendenhall that gave the Browns the ball at the Pittsburgh 44-yard line. (Seriously, I've seen 2-year-olds who hold onto toys they don't even want with more authority than Mendenhall carries a football.)
Not to be outdone, running back Isaac Redman fumbled three series later, giving the Browns the ball at the Pittsburgh 14. Even quarterback Brandon Weeden can throw a touchdown from there. And that's exactly what he did. Two series later, Jonathan Dwyer became the third back to put the ball on the turf. The hat trick came with 3:12 left in the second quarter.
But this is Cleveland, where no lead is safe; Pittsburgh got the ball back before the half, and a pass interference penalty against Plaxico Burress in the end zone led to a Chris Rainey one-yard touchdown run just before the break. Rainey, it's worth noting, is the fourth-string back.
Despite three unforced errors, the Steelers headed to the locker room with a 14-13 lead. This is what good teams do.
Except that Pittsburgh -- and this offense, specifically -- is not a good team. Batch looked like, well, a 37-year-old more than a decade removed from a starting gig. He showed signs of cracking in the first half and imploded during the final 30 minutes. He threw three interceptions, the last into double coverage with just over five minutes to go and the Steelers trailing 20-14.
But Pittsburgh's defense, which might have played one of its best games of the season, forced the Browns to punt four plays later. That set up … another Steelers fumble, this one courtesy of Rainey, who was in the game because the other three backs had been benched.
The Steelers' final fumble came on the last play, a desperate attempt to lateral the ball with too much field and not enough time.
So what does this all mean?
For the Browns, not much. It's a nice win for a young team, but Pat Shurmur's still getting canned.
For the Steelers, the implications are as huge as they are obvious: they have to get Ben Roethlisberger back. CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora has reported that Big Ben could be under center as soon as Week 13 for the Ravens rematch. The timing is critical because not only is Pittsburgh a completely different team without him, there are only five games left in the regular season: at Baltimore, San Diego, at Dallas, Cincinnati, and Cleveland.
Realistically, the Steelers could lose next week and still make the playoffs. But at 6-6, they would have to win out. On paper, it seems perfectly reasonable, but real life has a way of monkey-wrenching things up (see Sunday, for example).
Pittsburgh is still the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff race, just ahead of the 6-5 Bengals. But the margin for error has all but evaporated -- especially if the other wild-card team, the Colts, continue to outplay expectations (although it would make for a nice end-of-season Bruce Arians vindication story).
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. The Steelers need Big Ben, and they need him now.
(They could also use Antonio Brown, Marcus Gilbert, Troy Polamalu and Jerricho Cotchery, but every team is struggling with injuries at this point in the proceedings. Plus, as Lou Holtz once said: "Don't tell people your problems -- half of them don't care, and the other half are glad you got 'em.")
If Batch is on the field next week, Pittsburgh's season is effectively over. We feel comfortable with this assessment after what we saw unfold in Cleveland on Sunday. We're guessing the Ravens and Bengals would happily agree.