PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II milled about the locker room after Sunday's 24-10 season-ending win over Cleveland, offering handshakes to some players, pats on the back to others.
It wasn't a typical fall in Pittsburgh (8-8), which avoided its first losing season in a decade but missed the playoffs for the first time in three years after a dramatic collapse. Yet even with the anticipated departure of several bold-faced names, the Steelers remain committed to the plan that's made them one of the most consistent forces in a league where parity rules.
"There's going to be a few `old-school' guys like us left who can impart some wisdom and leadership," safety Troy Polamalu said.
Not so much in Cleveland, where coach Pat Shurmur's two-year tenure is likely down to its final hours. If he departs, the Browns (5-11) will be in search of their sixth coach since the franchise was reborn in 1999.
Though Shurmur hasn't spoken to new owner Jimmy Haslam, the coach – who is 9-23 in Cleveland – is anticipating working elsewhere next fall.
"I have kids in college, I have mouths to feed," Shurmur said. "This is my profession and this is what I choose to do. That's it. That is how simple it is in my mind."
Shurmur took a little extra time addressing his players during the postgame, perhaps sensing it marked the final time he'll get the chance. He declined to go into specifics, but his players could sense how much it meant to him even though the Browns failed to sweep the Steelers for the first time in 24 years.
"To me, he was trying to hold back tears," linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. "He put everything into it, and we were trying to do something that hadn't been done since 1988. With everything else that's looming over his head, it's tough. He's in a tough spot. The players appreciate it. We'll run through a brick wall for him; it's just too bad we couldn't get a win for him."
In the end, Shurmur's last setback looked an awful lot like the 22 that came before it. The Browns outgained the Steelers by more than 100 yards (320-212) but turned it over four times, twice deep in their own territory.
Ben Roethlisberger tossed short touchdown passes to Antonio Brown, Plaxico Burress and Leonard Pope as the Steelers continued their stretch of nine straight years without a losing season.
"I said earlier in the week that we wanted to come out and finish the year with a win and have a good feeling going into the offseason," Roethlisberger said. "That is what we did. I'm proud of the way the guys finish."
Cleveland's third-string quarterback, Thaddeus Lewis, completed 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards with a touchdown and an interception while filling in for injured starter Brandon Weeden.
"We just need to find a way to win, stats mean nothing," Browns linebacker Craig Robertson said. "You have two columns, wins and losses. That's all that matters."
That's all that matters to Haslam, who made a splash when he purchased the Browns earlier this season. The former Steelers minority owner wants to build Cleveland into a contender, which hasn't been consistently competitive in two decades.
Shurmur insists the building blocks are in place and for a brief stretch this season the Browns looked as if they had turned a corner. Cleveland put together a three-game winning streak spanning late November and early December that had some doing the complicated math necessary to put the Browns in the playoffs.
The optimism died just as quickly as it arose. Cleveland came back to earth in a 38-21 whipping at the hands of the Washington Redskins two weeks ago, followed by a blowout loss in Denver. Given a chance to sweep their biggest rivals for the first time in 24 years, the Browns instead lost to the Steelers in the regular-season finale for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
The changes in Pittsburgh won't be so widespread, but with an aging roster and salary cap issues. Nose tackle Casey Hampton, linebacker Larry Foote, offensive tackle Max Starks and wide receiver Mike Wallace are among those who will be free agents.
"You want everybody back but you know that is not what is going to happen," Roethlisberger said.