CLEVELAND-- At the conclusion of probably his last postgame press conference as Browns coach, Eric Mangini said to the assembled media, "Thanks for being patient with me. I tried to be better this year."
You wonder if he'll use the same line in his scheduled meeting this morning with president Mike Holmgren. They will meet as players clean out their lockers for the last time.
All indications are that Holmgren made up his mind on making a change before the Browns suffered their worst defeat of the season, 41-9, to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday. The big win for the Steelers (12-4) locked up the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, giving them a first-round playoff bye and a home game in the second round.
The big loss for the Browns gave them a second 5-11 season in a row under Mangini. This one left a bad taste because they lost their last four games as opposed to winning their last four.
"Five wins is five wins," said linebacker David Bowens, declining to rate Mangini's two years as coach.
Mangini struck a much more somber tone after this season finale than a year ago, of course, when his players celebrated the four-game winning streak by dumping Gatorade over him.
"We'll get together [today] and see where it goes," he said of the meeting with Holmgren. "I think the team has done a lot of good things this season. It's difficult to feel any of those positives right now in wake of what just happened."
Needing the win to preserve their third AFC North title in four years, the Steelers brought their A game and humiliated the Browns, who prided themselves all year on being competitive and never giving up.
The Steelers forced three Colt McCoy interceptions and sacked him four times. The game was decided on the first McCoy interception, on his second pass. It glanced off the left hand of tight end Benjamin Watson and was grabbed by safety Troy Polamalu. Ben Roethlisberger pounced on the miscue with a 56-yard TD pass to Mike Wallace on the very next play.
"I'm not surprised," crowed Steelers linebacker Larry Foote. "We had more to play for. They talk about going out with a good game, but the truth is their cars are packed up. They're on the last month of their lease. We had more at stake."
After the Steelers went ahead 14-0, the Browns moved 80 yards to the Steelers' 2. On fourth down, Mangini chose to kick a 19-yard field goal rather than go for the touchdown -- a common theme for him. The shivering crowd booed.
"I didn't really anticipate us not being able to slow them down defensively," Mangini explained. "I didn't want to come away from that drive with no points."
After the game, Mangini thanked his players for their effort all year and said he hoped to see them next year. But there was definitely a scent of change in the air as players fielded repeated questions about Mangini's future.
"I'm sure everybody thinks there is a possibility [of a coaching change]," said left tackle Joe Thomas. "We knew that was the way it was going to be coming into the season, so I don't think anything was different."
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