AFC WILD-CARD: PITTSBURGH 36, CLEVELAND 33

Steelers rally from 17 down to beat Browns


Published: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 1:17 a.m.

PITTSBURGH - The Cleveland Browns never have gotten over The Drive by John Elway. Now they've got to live with The Comeback by the quarterback who was once supposed to be the next Elway.

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Pittsburgh's Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala breaks through the Cleveland defense for a 3-yard TD run with 54 seconds remaining in the game.

The Associated Press

Tommy Maddox, the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year, led one of Pittsburgh's greatest comebacks by throwing three touchdown passes in the final 19 minutes as the Steelers rallied from a 17-point deficit to stun the Browns 36-33 Sunday in an AFC wild-card game.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala's 3-yard touchdown run with 54 seconds left secured the Steelers' most dramatic come-from-behind playoff victory since Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception against Oakland in 1972.

They trailed 17-7 at the half, 24-7 in the third quarter and 33-21 with just over 10 minutes remaining.

``Tommy brought the whole team together at halftime and told us what we were going to do,'' wide receiver Terance Mathis said. ``He said if you don't think we're going to win this game, you need to go back into the locker room.''

The Steelers denied the Browns their first road playoff victory since 1969 and their first playoff win of any kind since returning to the NFL in 1999. They also gave themselves a huge momentum lift going into Saturday's divisional game at second-seeded Tennessee.

The Jets, shutout winners Saturday over the Colts, play Sunday at top-seeded Oakland.

``I was already in Oakland,'' Kevin Johnson said, referring to the Browns' opponent if they had won.

For the Browns, it was an eerie flashback to Elway's memorable 98-yard ``The Drive'' to beat the Browns for Denver in the 1987 AFC championship game. Remarkably, Denver drafted Maddox five years later to replace Elway.

Maddox later shuttled among four NFL teams without finding work before becoming the Steelers' starter earlier this season, 10 years after making his last NFL start.

``I was very fortunate to play behind John Elway and see all the things he was able to do in games we did not think we had a chance to win,'' said Maddox, who was 30-of-48 for 367 yards and two interceptions.

Afterward, Steelers coach Bill Cowher, disappointed at home so often before in the playoffs, threw his cap, jumped up and down and yelled in a stadium runway.

``It's one of those wins you can't see happening, but you just keep hoping it will keep going the way it's going,'' Cowher said of the frantic comeback.

The Steelers were shredded all afternoon by Kelly Holcomb, who threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns, and trailed 24-7 until Maddox's 6-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 3:50 left in the third quarter.

``But I can't say how many times I must have said, `We've got time. We have time, so don't panic,''' offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey said. ``I never felt there was a panic button pushed by anyone.''

Except the Browns.

Their game-long inability to run the ball - rookie William Green ran 25 times for just 30 yards - proved their undoing.

``This is going to hurt. This burns inside,'' Browns receiver Dennis Northcutt said. ``It's going to be very hard to move on.''

Mostly because the Browns won't be moving on.

Unable to wind the clock down, the Browns were forced to throw on almost every down, and, once the Steelers' defense tightened up, that left Pittsburgh the time to come back.

Still, even after the comeback began, the Browns had enough left to drive for Phil Dawson's 24-yard field goal and Holcomb's 22-yard touchdown pass to Andre Davis that made it 33-21.

But the Steelers, who have lost four home playoff games under Cowher since 1992, were confident they could come back after rallying from 11 down in the fourth quarter against Baltimore only last week.

Maddox gave the Steelers a chance, leading a 77-yard drive that ended with his 5-yard scoring pass to Hines Ward with 3:06 left, cutting the deficit to 33-28.

Even then, the Browns needed only a first down or two to run it out.

``I don't think anybody in the building thought we weren't going to win,'' Holcomb said. ``I think everybody thought we were going to go on.''

But Northcutt, who had made big play after big play with two scoring catches and a long punt return, couldn't hold onto a throw from Holcomb on third-and-12 and the Browns punted.

``I just dropped it, plain and simple,'' Northcutt said.

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