PITTSBURGH — Cleveland Browns coach Rob Chudzinski lasted one season in his dream job.
Chudzinski, a Toledo native, was fired Sunday night, hours after a 20-7 loss to the archrival Steelers. The Browns didn’t exactly provide a ringing endorsement in a lifeless finale at the end of another lost season.
Cleveland’s feeble defeat to surging Pittsburgh on Sunday did little to quell speculation Chudzinski could be on his way out. He was.
The Browns (4-12) lost seven straight to end the year and 10 of 11 after a 3-2 start. Not exactly the kind of forward momentum new owner Jimmy Haslam was hoping to build.
Still, Chudzinski’s players did something after the game they failed to do during it: rally around their coach.
“It’s just absurd to me that a report would be out like that, about a good coach like that,” Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said long before the move was made. “It’s crazy, and that (ticked) me off when I heard that.”
Perhaps, but Cleveland didn’t exactly play angry. The Steelers (8-8) scored on their opening possession and were never really threatened while keeping their postseason hopes alive for a few more hours. Pittsburgh’s hopes of becoming the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs after an 0-4 start ended when San Diego beat Kansas City 27-24 in overtime on Sunday evening.
“We started 0-4 and things weren’t looking so good, and we had one of the worst records in football,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “Guys continued to fight and never quit.”
The Browns might not be able to say the same after a team littered with five Pro Bowlers — three more than Pittsburgh — lost 12 games for the seventh time since the franchise was revived in 1999.
“You can’t put your finger on one thing that happened,” Browns safety T.J. Ward said. “There were a bunch of things, a number of things that happened. I can’t put my hand on them all right now, but it definitely wasn’t just one thing.”
It was more like everything. Seven of Cleveland’s last 10 losses were by a touchdown or more, most of them in games that simply got away from the Browns in the second half. A quarterback situation that never really appeared settled didn’t help and neither did a defense that sagged at the absolute worst time.
“Sometimes there are rough years,” Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell said. “This year was a different rough year because there was still a lot of progress. We were in every game, but we didn’t get the results we wanted.”
The Browns never do against the Steelers, who own a 26-5 advantage over Cleveland since 1999.
Roethlisberger passed for 179 yards and a touchdown against two interceptions as Pittsburgh won its third straight to avoid the franchise’s first losing season since 2003. The victory also continued a furious second-half rally by the Steelers, who went 6-2 over the season’s final eight weeks to fuel a later if futile run at the AFC’s final postseason spot.
“Guys just kept fighting,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “Wasn’t anything glorious or something beautiful, we just came out of nowhere.”
Unlike Cleveland, there is no widespread panic in Pittsburgh. A season that appeared teetering on embarrassment after a 55-31 loss to New England on Nov. 3 ended up with a decidedly rosier finish.
The Steelers scored on the opening drive, a 9-yard strike from Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery, and it was more than enough. Whenever the Browns threatened, they found a way to botch it. Twice they failed on fourth-down attempts in Pittsburgh territory and didn’t reach the end zone until Campbell found Fozzy Whitaker on a 35-yard pass with 2:46 remaining.
By then, most of the attention had turned to the scoreboard, where the biggest roars were saved for scores by the Bengals and Jets, who then won to boost Pittsburgh’s playoff chances.
The rapid development of Bell helped Pittsburgh’s remarkable turnaround. He broke Hall of Famer Franco Harris’ team record for total yards from scrimmage by a rookie by combining for 96 yards in the muck at Heinz Field.
Bell’s 5-yard touchdown burst in the second quarter, which included a nifty spin move in the backfield, gave the Steelers a 14-0 lead at the break. It capped an 87-yard drive in which Bell touched the ball 10 times in 14 plays.
That was more than enough for a defense that appeared rejuvenated, sacking Campbell three times.
NOTES: Gordon’s 1,646 yards receiving are the 10th-highest total in NFL history. ... Gordon and TE Jordan Cameron combined for more receptions (167) than any teammates in Cleveland history. ... Browns LT Joe Thomas extended his streak of consecutive offensive snaps played to 6,923, the longest streak in the league.