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Eighteen seasons of emotion, with a pair of Super Bowl victories, statistical splendor and Pro Bowl selections all mixed in, were crammed into one Monday night in Pittsburgh.
Awash in memories, Ben Roethlisberger was able to walk away from Heinz Field a winner, kneel out a victory and take a victory lap following his Pittsburgh Steelers’ 26-14 triumph over the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football.
“Um, you know what, it’s funny because, probably not the way you wanted it, other than the win,” Roethlisberger, holding back tears, told ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the game when asked how his final game at Heinz Field went. “And that’s all that really matters. That’s kind of been the story of my career. It’s not always pretty, but we find a way. Man, did our defense step up tonight and the guys, it was just so much fun to be out here. These are the best fans in sports and this is the best place to play.”
Ahead of Monday’s game, Roethlisberger let it be known that everything pointed to this being his final home game at Heinz Field and though Big Ben’s performance was hardly a reminder of his past magnificence, the final result certainly was.
Few in NFL history have been more successful than Roethlisberger on his homefield. Roethlisberger has 164 wins as a starter, which are the fifth-most in NFL history, but the most for a quarterback to spend his entire career with one team. An abundance of them came in the friendly confines of Heinz Field, where he’s gone 92-31, those 92 victories the fourth-most home victories with one team for a quarterback in league chronicle, per NFL Research.
Indeed, in a career full of success, the home cooking tasted good for Roethlisberger and the Steelers far more often than not.
Even in 2021 as the Steelers sit at 8-7-1, Roethlisberger and his squad went 6-2 at home with a six-game winning streak to end it. And it ended with a win over the Browns, who Roethlisberger has dominated to the tune of a perfect 13-0 tally at home through his career in the regular season (13-1 including last season’s playoff loss). Playing in front of the Pittsburgh faithful was remarkable for Roethlisberger.
“We’ve still got another game, I’ll be excited, ready to go for that, but this is just an awesome place,” Roethlisberger said.
It was a fitting tribute for Roethlisberger’s final act, but likewise a fitting example of why the finish line has arrived.
The glory years were celebrated, but the present struggles were harshly abundant even as his Browns counterpart struggled mightily.
Roethlisberger threw for just 123 yards on 46 attempts, tossing a touchdown to Diontae Johnson and one interception with an ugly 56.2 rating at night’s end. Performance-wise, the Steelers’ evening belonged to T.J. Watt on defense and rookie running back Najee Harris, who had 188 yards on 28 carries, including a game-clinching 37-yard touchdown.
“Really, he gave us this victory,” Roethlisberger said of Harris.
A sudden surge from Cleveland cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 19-14 late in the game and put Roethlisberger and Co. in position to salt away the win. Harris had other plans as the rookie first-rounder burst to the outside and brought home a victory.
And then on the Browns’ ensuing drive, Tre Norwood’s interception gave Roethlisberger the gift of a victory formation and the opportunity to bask in the adoration of applause from the home fans.
“I didn’t think I was gonna take the field again, but it’s the best play in football when you’re an offensive player and you take a knee,” Roethlisberger said. “So, I’m glad I got to do it one last time.”
It was a memorable evening for Roethlisberger and the organization.
“It was a special night,” Watt said, not of his career-high four sacks, but of the atmosphere created by the fans for Roethlisberger.
There is still a slim chance the Steelers make the playoffs and Week 18 isn’t Roethlisberger’s final game in black and gold, but Monday night was a recall to what was. It was about all the wins at Heinz Field that led to AFC North titles and playoff berths and two precious Lombardi Trophies for one of the most storied NFL franchises.
“We’re just so appreciative of [No. 7], not only his play, but his leadership,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “Tonight we just pause and we’re appreciative of seven and his body of work.
“Just a beautiful thing.” As Roethlisberger rounded the field, rejoiced with the fans and let the tears go, Tomlin watched in fond recollection. The ride’s not quite over yet, but it’s certainly worth remembering at this moment.
“I was just appreciating the last 15 years with hi,” Tomlin said. “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve seen a lot. It’s been a heckuva ride. It’s been one that it’s been an honor to be a part of and enjoy.”