PITTSBURGH, DEC. 26 -- Nearly half of Bernie Kosar's passes fluttered like Nerf balls -- one fourth-quarter interception could have cost his Cleveland Browns the game -- but he had the good sense to quit passing in the last seven minutes and pound the Steelers into submission.
After Cornell Gowdy's 45-yard interception return got Pittsburgh within six points and the hometown faithful all steamed up over the possibility of a spot in the playoffs for the Steelers, Kosar and the Browns held the ball for the last seven minutes and 25 seconds by running on 11 of 12 plays.
The Browns' game of keepaway resulted in a 19-13 victory, their third consecutive AFC Central title, their second victory in 18 years at Three Rivers Stadium and the elimination of the Steelers, who blew almost every important play in front of the largest home crowd of the season, 56,394.
The Steelers undid themselves, a rookie cornerback committing two plain-as-day unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and the worst starting quarterback in the league (statistically) throwing two interceptions late in the game.
The difference between the Steelers (8-7) and the Browns (10-5) is the difference between Kosar and Mark Malone.
Kosar wasn't about to let his ego get in the way of winning a division title and getting a shot at the home field advantage through the AFC playoffs. He had completed 21 of 36 passes for 241 yards, and probably could have gone back to the air with success.
But he knew his runners, Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, could control those last seven minutes. "After the interception, we decided on that last series that we were going to have to run the football," Kosar said.
"To win a championship in December and January, when the weather gets bad, you have to be able to run the ball."
So, run they did. The Browns rushed only 85 yards the entire game against a vicious defense, but 46 of those yards came on the last drive.
It left the Steelers to agonize over a third straight season outside the playoffs, and left such Super Bowl veterans as John Stallworth calling for possible changes in personnel and strategy.
Malone was booed for what he did today (11 for 18, 126 yards and two interceptions).
The interceptions gave him 19 for the season, to only six touchdown passes. The Steelers' defense accounted for seven touchdowns.
The seventh by the defense came today when Gowdy caught Kosar's tipped pass and took it for the touchdown. But Malone's play neutralized whatever the defense did.
After Matt Bahr's 31-yard field goal and Kosar's two-yard touchdown pass to Derek Tennell had pushed the Browns to a 9-0 lead early in the second quarter, the Steelers got into Cleveland territory, only to have Malone botch a short third-down pass. The Steelers had to settle for Gary Anderson's 39-yard field goal, which made it 9-3.
Just before halftime, it looked as if the Steelers would claim the lead. A 26-yard punt had given them possession just 28 yards from a touchdown. And an interference call against Cleveland's Hanford Dixon on third-and-seven got the Steelers to the 10.
But on first and goal, Malone threw toward a receiver who was engulfed by three defenders. Stallworth, at the goal line, had no chance to catch the ball, but Browns linebacker Eddie Johnson did, and he made the interception that enabled Cleveland to preserve its lead.
"That was the big turnaround play," Malone admitted. "We were going to score and, had we scored there, the game might have been different."
A short Cleveland drive resulted in Bahr's 30-yard field goal for 12-3 in the third quarter. Another Pittsburgh threat fizzled when, among other things, Malone fumbled the snap at the Browns 18, and the Steelers settled for Anderson's 27-yard field goal for 12-6.
Delton Hall, Pittsburgh's rookie cornerback, made sure Malone couldn't be faulted for everything. The Steelers' defense had stopped Cleveland cold on third and nine just inside the 10, but Hall got into a fight with Cleveland receiver Webster Slaughter, was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct and kicked out of the game.
Instead of having to kick a field goal, the Browns had first down at the 4 and went on to make it 19-6 on Mack's two-yard run.
Hall's view of the proceedings: "We had already been going at it. I had slapped him upside the head a couple of times. He wanted to talk about this, that and the other. I caught him with a few hits under the throat . . . On that one incident, he came up to me talking about what he was going to do and I told him not to even think about it. I grabbed his face mask and we started swinging.
"It really crushed me that I got thrown out and he didn't. The officials had it in for me all day."
The Steelers, including Coach Chuck Noll, had already been sensitive about what they felt were cheap shots taken from the Houston Oilers last week. "If they want to fight to the point where all 45 men get kicked out and we have to go with the coaches playing, that's all right with us," Cleveland's Johnson said. "I think they overemphasized all that 'We're-not-taking-any-stuff-this-week' and got carried away."
He said he would have "walked away" had he known he alone would be penalized, and said: "I've got to be more intelligent about that stuff next year."
But that won't help the Steelers today. Not even the interception-touchdown return helped in the end. Johnson said that Cleveland teams in the past -- the Browns lost 16 straight in this stadium, some under incredible circumstances, before winning for the first time last season -- would have said, " 'Oh, my God, here we go again.' "
But the Browns said they never fretted today in winning their third straight AFC title, which will probably get them at least one home game in the playoffs, depending on what happens throughout the AFC Sunday and Monday.
Cleveland 3 6 3 7 19 Pittsburgh 0 3 0 10 13 First Quarter
C -- FG Bahr 31, 11:23 Second Quarter
C -- Tennell 2 pass from Kosar (kick failed), 2:15
P -- FG Anderson 39, 6:12 Third Quarter
C -- FG Bahr 30, 5:40 Fourth Quarter
P -- FG Anderson 27, :03
C -- Byner 2 run (Bahr kick), 5:24
P -- Gowdy 45 interception return (Anderson kick), 7:27
A -- 56,394
Browns Steelers First downs 22 10 Rushes-yards 30-85 26-95 Passing yards 230 126 Return yards 26 51 Passing 21-36-1 11-18-2 Sacked-yards lost 2-11 0-0 Punts-average 4-26 4-40 Fumbles-lost 2-0 3-0 Penalties-yards 3-25 11-90 Time of possession 32:58
RUSHING -- Cleveland: Byner 12-48, Mack 18-37. Pittsburgh: Pollard 11-42, Jackson 6-28, Malone 4-24, Abercr
PASSING -- Cleveland: Kosar 21-36-1, 241 yards. Pittsburgh: Malone 11-18-2, 126.
RECEIVING -- Cleveland: Newsome 6-94, Slaughter 4-65, Byner 3-19, Langhorne 2-30, Mack 2-17, Brennan 2-12,
MISSED FIELD GOALS -- Pittsburgh: Anderson 42.