PITTSBURGH — There were no helmets hurled as weapons, no suspensions and no penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct on Sunday when the Steelers and Browns played, just a pedestrian matchup of perplexing teams hanging on to playoff hopes.
Two weeks after one of the uglier on-field fights in recent years, there were no snafus as the A.F.C. North rivals faced off without the main protagonists in the melee. Browns defensive lineman Myles Garrett, who ripped off Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet and hit him on the head with it, was suspended for the season. Rudolph, who was fined $50,000 for his role in the altercation, was benched in favor of Devlin Hodges, a rookie quarterback better known for his duck calling than his play calling.
Of course, no N.F.L. grudge match would be complete without histrionics. Several Steelers arrived at Heinz Field on Sunday wearing black “Free Pouncey” sweatshirts in support of center Maurkice Pouncey, who was suspended for two games and fined $35,096 for his role in the fight. On Friday, Browns Coach Freddie Kitchens wore a T-shirt that read “Pittsburgh Started It.” The coach later said the shirt, a birthday gift from his daughters, was a joke.
“You just don’t see that from upper management,” Ramon Foster, the Steelers guard, said of Kitchens’s shirt. “Why throw gas?”
Still, whatever animosity the teams shared was subsumed by a more sobering prospect: The loser would fall further out of contention in a division dominated by the Baltimore Ravens. On Sunday, the Steelers won, 20-13, as Hodges and the team’s running game shook off a slow start. Pittsburgh (7-5) held on to the sixth seed in the A.F.C., but the playoff aspirations of the Browns (5-7) faded further.
Both teams seemed to be hanging on, but for different reasons.
If not for their sixth-ranked defense, which gives up just 19.3 points a game, the Steelers would be an afterthought in the N.F.L. The team acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Miami Dolphins before Week 3, a trade that bolstered an already talented defensive backfield. After starting the season 1-4, the Steelers willed their way back into contention.
On Sunday, the offense held its own without its top quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger (injured in the second game of the season); its top running back, James Conner (injured shoulder); and its leading receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster (injured shoulder.)
Despite his inexperience, Hodges, an undrafted free agent who was signed by the Steelers after training camp, completed several long passes, including a 30-yard touchdown score to receiver James Washington, who had two defenders draped over him. In the third quarter, Hodges helped put the Steelers in the lead for good when he hit Washington again for 44 yards. Four plays later, Benny Snell Jr. ran for a 1-yard score, giving the Steelers a 17-10 lead and turning Hodges, whose nickname is Duck, into a minor legend.
“Duck has been a leader since he stepped foot on the Steelers’ facility,” Snell said after the game. “I witnessed it firsthand, so I always have my trust in Duck.”
On the next drive, the Steelers’ defense did its part. Linebacker Bud Dupree sacked Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who fumbled as he fell to the ground, giving the Steelers the ball at midfield. Pittsburgh added a field goal to push the lead to 10 points.
It has been that kind of season for the Browns. Despite their history of disappointment, the Browns were expected to take a big step forward this season. Mayfield got help in his second year with the addition of receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and running back Kareem Hunt, who served an eight-game suspension for a pair of violent incidents, including one in which he was videotaped kicking a woman, before joining Nick Chubb in the backfield.
But in Kitchens’s first year as a head coach, Cleveland has instead been a model of inconsistency. The Browns beat the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens in the same season for the first time since returning to the N.F.L. in 1999 and took down the playoff-bound Buffalo Bills.
But Mayfield has almost as many interceptions as touchdown scores — completing barely 60 percent of his attempted passes — and has been sacked 31 times this season, including four times on Sunday. Beckham has just two touchdown scores.
With Garrett, a No. 1 overall draft pick in 2017, this season, Cleveland’s defense has been middle-of-the-pack. (Previously, it was among the league’s worst.) Despite his absence on Sunday, the Browns kept the game interesting when cornerback Terrance Mitchell intercepted Hodges near midfield with just over seven minutes remaining. The Browns were unable to convert the turnover into a score, however.
The Browns’ confounding performance on Sunday, though, was a fresh reminder that a Steelers-Browns rivalry is more illusion than reality. As Health Gilbert, a Steelers fan visiting from Oklahoma, put it: “Rivalries are between two good teams.”