1/05/2003 - Steelers beat Browns, 36-33

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(Steelers QB Tommy Maddox. Photo by Al Tielemans, SI Photos)

It's hard to believe a playoff game could take place where Kelly Holcomb and Tommy Maddox were the starting quarterbacks, let alone a thrilling game that came down to the last seconds. Yet that’s exactly what happened on a snowy day in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the Browns failed to put away the Steelers after holding the lead for 59 minutes and six seconds. In what was anticipated to be a low-scoring game, the two QB's combined for almost 800 passing yards and six touchdowns.

Coming into this NFC wildcard game, Kelly Holcomb had had to battle with Tim Couch, the No. 1 overall pick, for the starting job. Although Couch was higher on the depth chart, he had injured his leg in the last regular season game of the year, forcing coach Butch Davis to go with the backup. It turned out to be a stroke of luck, as Holcomb was brilliant from start to finish. In just his fourth career start, Holcomb threw for 429 yards, a record for a regulation playoff game.

After a touchdown throw to Dennis Northcutt and a defensive stop, Cleveland had a commanding 24-7 lead with 11:12 remaining in the third quarter. Holcomb was red hot and the Browns' defense was not perturbed by the Pittsburgh snow. But the Steelers did not panic and began to drive down field with increased confidence. Pittsburgh produced touchdowns on their next two possessions to cut the lead to 27-21 early in the fourth quarter.

The Browns weren't ready to cave in just yet. Possessing poise many thought he lacked, Holcomb came right back and responded with a touchdown of his own, doing so in only five plays. After failing to complete a two-point convergence, the Browns still maintained a 33-21 lead.

Both teams punted on their next possessions. The Steelers' fate was in the hands of former XFL MVP Tommy Maddox, who had only 5:30 to overcome a 12-point deficit. Maddox, who himself had supplanted Kordell Stewart at quarterback earlier in the season, did not project clutchness to a majoriet of Steelers fans; many began heading to the exits, and the goal-line bleachers were almost completely abandoned as Maddox began his drive.

"I don't think anybody in the building thought we weren't going to win," Holcomb said.

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(Antwaan Randle El gets his facemask pulled. Photo by Bob Rosato)

Still, Maddox was up to the task. He drove the team 77 yards before a five-yard TD to Hines Ward made it 33-28 with 3:06 left. Maddox and the Steelers were bailed out by several Browns penalties that stopped the clock and helped moved the chains. Had three penalties that gave Pittsburgh three first downs not occurred, Cleveland likely would have gotten the ball back without Pittsburgh scoring.

Instead, the Browns still needed to run out the clock. With the Steelers down to two timeouts and Holcomb playing great, getting the one first down that would win them the game didn’t appear that hard. Unfortunately, the running game had been nonexistent for the Browns all day. Rookie halfback Willie Green, who ran for just 30 yards on 25 rushes, got nowhere on first-and-10. After Pittsburgh used its second timeout, Davis elected to revert back to the passing game.

On third-and-12, Holcomb fired a pass to an open Dennis Northcutt that, if caught, would have ended the game. But the ball went through the wide receiver’s hands, and Cleveland was forced to punt; the Browns had used just 35 seconds.

The Steelers got the ball back with 2:35 left and one timeout. Maddox completed four of five passes on the drive and set Pittsburgh at the three-yard line with 58 seconds left. On second-and-goal, Fuamatu-Ma’afala ran in for the potential game-winner.

Down 36-33, Cleveland still had 50 seconds to move from their own 23. Having used up of all their timeouts in the third quarter, the Browns were at a major disadvantage. After another Holcomb pass to Northcutt, Kelly urgently spiked the ball, leaving the Browns just seven seconds to move from the Steelers' 45. The next pass was complete to Andre King at the 29-yard line -- enough to put them in field goal range. But King stumbled on the icy turf and failed to make it out of bounds in time, giving Pittsburgh the dramatic victory as time ran out.

"It's an instant classic," Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said after the game. "Years from now, they will still be talking about this one."

For the Browns, who had once famously lost on a last-minute drive by John Elway, they now had deal with the infamy of losing to Tommy Maddox, who had once been John Elway's backup. "This is going to hurt," said Northcutt. "This burns inside. It's going to be very hard to move on."

With the win, the Steelers advanced to face the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs, where they lost a 34-31 heart-breaker in overtime.

Although Tim Couch had played solid in 2002, Holcomb’s performance allowed him to become Cleveland's starting quarterback in 2003. Couch was released in 2004 and, following several surgeries and failed drug tests, failed to make it back to the NFL. The highlight of Holcomb's regular season career came in 2004, when he threw five touchdowns in a 58-48 Cleveland loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in only the third game in history to produce 100 points. For Maddox, who went 30-48 with 367 yards, his postseason comeback turn out to be the finest moment of his NFL career. In 2005, his tenure as the starting quarterback of the Steelers ended with an injury, paving the way for Ben Roethlisberger to take over.

Further reading:

Steelers beat Browns on late rally [NFL.com]

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