Steelers 36, Browns 33
It has been 23 years since the Pittsburgh Steelers added to their collection of Super Bowl trophies, and they have experienced more playoff anguish than exhilaration under Coach Bill Cowher. But they recaptured some of their storied franchise's postseason magic today, riding the passing and leadership of quarterback Tommy Maddox and getting a final-minute touchdown to complete a late comeback and beat the Cleveland Browns, 36-33, in a wild first-round AFC playoff game.
The 102nd meeting between these blue-collar rivals produced a day of riveting football. With their running game bottled up, the Browns turned to fill-in quarterback Kelly Holcomb and got one big play after another, as he threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns. Cleveland raced to a two-touchdown lead in the first half and stretched it to 24-7 early in the third quarter.
But the Steelers didn't wilt, and Maddox continued his joy ride from the XFL to NFL standout. He led the Steelers to three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a three-yard run by reserve fullback Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala that gave Pittsburgh its first lead with 54 seconds to play.
The Steelers' defense withstood Holcomb's last-ditch effort when Cleveland wide receiver Andre King dived for the sideline at the Pittsburgh 29-yard line but couldn't get out of bounds before the clock ran down and Cowher and Maddox could leave the field with their arms raised in triumph.
"I've never been involved in a game like this," running back Jerome Bettis said. "It had all the makings of a Hollywood movie."
Maddox did his best crunch-time impression of the quarterback he once backed up in Denver, John Elway. He was intercepted twice in the first half but threw for three second-half touchdowns and finished with 367 passing yards.
"He plays without a conscience," Pittsburgh wide receiver Plaxico Burress said. "He doesn't remember what happened the last play."
Said Maddox: "I hope [Elway] would be proud of it. I can honestly say I thought about him on the sideline one time. . . . I won an XFL game in double or triple overtime. It was exciting, but nothing like this."
The Steelers beat the Browns for the third time this season and will play at Tennessee on Saturday. Pittsburgh entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the AFC, hoping to do better as an underdog than it did a year ago as a favorite. Last January, the Steelers lost the AFC championship game at home to New England.
"We know the feeling we had last year," Burress said, "and we didn't want to have that feeling again."
For most of this snowy day, the Browns were in command. Tailback William Green was getting nowhere -- he finished with 30 rushing yards on 25 carries -- but Holcomb, starting because of Tim Couch's broken leg, was more than picking up the slack. On the game's third snap, Browns wide receiver Kevin Johnson beat cornerback Hank Poteat on third and 14, hauled in Holcomb's perfectly placed lob and raced to the Pittsburgh 1 for an 83-yard gain.
The Steelers, playing without injured cornerback Chad Scott, lost two more defensive backs to injury in the game. "It really gets frustrating when a team is going up and down the field, and you can't stop them no matter what," Pittsburgh safety Brent Alexander said.
Green plowed into the end zone from the 1. Cleveland made it 14-0 in the opening minute of the second quarter. The Browns took over at the Pittsburgh 32 after recovering a fumbled punt by Steelers rookie Antwaan Randle El and needed one play to score. Wideout Dennis Northcutt victimized Poteat to catch another on-target throw from Holcomb.
Randle El redeemed himself by racing 66 yards for a touchdown on his next punt return. But Phil Dawson's 31-yard field goal upped Cleveland's lead to 17-7 at halftime, and Northcutt's 59-yard punt return set up his 15-yard touchdown reception just under three minutes into the third quarter. Cleveland had a chance for more on its next possession, but Holcomb was intercepted by safety Mike Logan. The Steelers went to a no-huddle offense, and Maddox told his teammates to keep the faith.
"I wanted them to see in my eyes that I still believed there was a chance to win," Maddox said. "The amazing thing was, everybody still believed it."
Maddox took the Steelers 71 yards and threw a six-yard pass to Burress for a touchdown. Cleveland got a 24-yard field goal by Dawson eight seconds into the fourth quarter, but Maddox responded with a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jerame Tuman. Holcomb stretched the lead to 33-21 with a 22-yard touchdown toss to wide receiver Andre Davis on a play on which it appeared the play clock had expired before the Browns snapped the ball.
No matter. Maddox threw a five-yard touchdown pass to wideout Hines Ward with 3:06 to go. The Browns threw two incompletions while going three plays and out, and the Steelers got the ball at their 39 with 2:35 left. Maddox and Burress teamed for completions of 24 and 17 yards on the winning drive, and Ma'afala covered the final three yards on a second-and-goal draw play.
"It's a very resilient group, a very confident group," Cowher said. "Even though they're down, they're never out. It's just a higher hill they have to climb."