NFL

Browns end dismal season with another close loss

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CLEVELAND (AP)

Three teams in the AFC North are prepping for the playoffs.

The Cleveland Browns aren't one of them.

Not this season. Not again. Not even close.

Unable to capitalize on two Pittsburgh's fumbles in the second half, the Browns were beaten 13-9 on Sunday by the Steelers, who defeated Cleveland for the 16th time in 17 games and will limp into the postseason.

Isaac Redman replaced injured starting running back Rashard Mendenhall and scored a touchdown, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made enough big plays on his sprained ankle and Pittsburgh survived a last-play heave into the end zone by the Browns (4-12), who will be on the sideline while the other three teams in their division go to the postseason.

''It's tough,'' Browns linebacker Chris Gocong said. ''We are definitely a lot better than our record shows. There were so many games in which we were so close and they were decided by a handful of points, and if only a couple of plays had gone the other way we definitely could have turned it around.''

Instead, while the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals begin runs they hope end in the Super Bowl, the Browns can get a head start planning for free agency, the NFL draft and next season.

''We just have to learn how to win these games,'' said kicker Phil Dawson, whose three field goals accounted for all of Cleveland's points. ''It's not enough to put a good effort out there, but you have to actually make the plays to score points. We are close.''

The Browns lost their last six games and nine of 10 under first-year coach Pat Shurmur. Cleveland was competitive - the Browns lost their final three games by a combined 13 points - but wound up with one less win that last season.

''We intended to win a lot more games than that,'' said cornerback Joe Haden. ''The only thing that kept us going is we didn't really get blown out in any games. We need to find a way to come up with a big play, come up with the big stop, the big score and the season would be totally different.''

Redman scored on a 7-yard run in the third quarter for the Steelers (12-4), who finished tied with Baltimore for first but lost the tiebreaker because the Ravens (12-4) beat them twice. Pittsburgh needed to win and hope Cincinnati (9-7) could knock off the Ravens, who beat the Bengals 24-16.

But the Steelers are in the playoffs as a wild card and will face Tim Tebow and the Broncos in Denver next week.

''Now is the time to go out and play our best football,'' said Roethlisberger, who went 23 of 40 for 221 yards on his gimpy left ankle. ''If you are a great team, you have to win on the road. We'd like to get it together, starting next week.''

The Steelers may be without Mendenhall, their leading rusher.

He was hurt on the final play of the first quarter, when he went down after a 5-yard gain and immediately grabbed his right knee. Mendenhall walked slowly to the sideline, slapping hands with some teammates on his way to the bench. He didn't return.

After the game, Mendenhall left the stadium on crutches, his head hanging in disappointment.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made it sound as if Mendenhall could miss the postseason.

''It's not good, of course, when a guy goes down in open grass and is not touched by anyone,'' Tomlin said. `'Experience tells me that in general that's not good.''

Tomlin said Mendenhall would be examined when the team gets home.

The Steelers survived two fumbles by Redman in the second half and then held their breath on the final play when Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace floated a pass into a crowd in the back of the end zone. Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu came over the top and got his hand on the ball before rookie wide receiver Greg Little could grab it, allowing the Steelers to escape.

It was no surprise Wallace's toss fell innocently to the grass. Little bounced the Browns way all season.

Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward had five catches and became the eighth player in NFL history to reach 1,000 career catches.

Ward grabbed a shovel pass in the fourth quarter, and although it lost 3 yards, he reached the milestone. Ward and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice are the only players with 1,000 receptions and more than one Super Bowl win. Ward was embraced by his teammates when he came to the sideline after his catch, but it was one of the few things worth celebrating on a sloppy day for the Steelers, who dominated the stat sheet but couldn't put the Browns away.

''It's the happiest negative-yard catch I've ever had,'' Ward said. ''I always try to put team ahead of personal goals. But 1,000 catches and over 12,000 yards is not bad considering I was a third-round pick.''

Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison was well-behaved.

The hard-hitting Harrison, who was suspended for one game for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy on Dec. 8, had little impact on the game. He was credited with three tackles, but none of them will need to be reviewed by Commissioner Roger Goodell.

With the score tied 6-6 in the third, Polamalu's interception of Wallace at Cleveland's 43 set up the Steelers' go-ahead score.

On 3rd-and-2, Wallace rolled right, and feeling pressure from backup linebacker Jason Worlids, forced a pass to tight end Evan Moore that Polamalu read perfectly and picked off near the sideline.

''Troy made a great play,'' said Wallace, who went only 16 of 41 for 177 yards and lost all three starts as McCoy's replacement. ''I probably shouldn't have thrown it.''

Notes: Browns WR Josh Cribbs had a career-high 7 catches for 91 yards. .. Browns LB D'Qwell Jackson tied a season-high with 13 tackles..... Dawson finished 24 of 29 and has 1,155 points - 194 behind club leader Lou Groza. Dawson is hoping to be back for a 14th season with Cleveland, which placed the franchise tag on him this year. ''I gave my heart and soul to this team this year,'' he said. ... Browns RB Peyton Hillis left with a knee injury after gaining 30 yards on 10 carries. Hillis is eligible for free agency, but it's not clear if the Browns want him back after his drama-filled season.

Tagged: Browns, Ravens, Seneca Wallace, Broncos, Steelers, Phil Dawson, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, Tim Tebow, Isaac Redman, Greg Little

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