Steelers vs. Browns: The ’02-’03 A.F.C. Wild Card Comeback

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A.F.C. Wild Card Playoff

January 5, 2003

Steelers 36 – Browns 33

To be perfectly honest, I never saw Cleveland’s quick strike score to begin the game.  I had woken up late from a sleep-over at my friend’s place (I lived in Denver at the time), and rushed home to my basement and saw that the score read 7-0 Cleveland!  I ran home two blocks from my friend’s house as fast as I could.  And even though I was barely late at all, I missed a lot.

An 83 yard pass from Holcomb to Johnson and a 1 yard TD plunge by Green, put the Steelers in a 7-0 hole with barely a minute gone by in the game!

I sat stunned in my Parents’ basement at the sight of the scoreboard on t.v. and prepared to watch the Steelers’ Offense hit the field.  I kept thinking to myself, “Meh, spot ’em 7, it’s the most they’ll get all day.”  Honestly I figured that the Steelers would be able to do regroup without their starting CB Chad Scott and fix their early mistake.  Moreover I figured the Steelers’ Offense would get out to a fast start: Boy was I wrong!

The Steelers did manage to give us fans a glimmer of hope when they put together a nice drive that saw Amos Zereoue almost go the distance on a 36 yard run later in the Quarter.  Sadly “Tommy Turnover” came out and the Steelers hurt themselves big time.  Maddox’s pass near the Goal Line to Hines Ward was picked off by Daylon McCutcheon who thwarted the Steelers’ best scoring chance that far into the game!

After the rest of the 1st Quarter went scoreless and saw the Steelers’ Defense shutting down William Green, the Browns decided to go for the kill in the 2nd.

The Steelers gave the Brows cake-field position when Rookie Punt Returner Antwaan Randle El fumbled a punt after a hit from Lewis Sanders and Cleveland recovered the ball on the Steelers’ 32 yard line!  Then, Holcomb threw a 32 yard pass to Dennis Northcutt down the side-line for the TD on the very next play to make the score 14-0!  Beat again on the play I must add was Steelers CB Hank Poteat, a guy who had a miserable day filling in for Scott on the big stage.

The Steelers still kept plugging away as Maddox and his WR’s kept moving the football but not scoring any points.  It only got worse when they put together a nice drive and Maddox turned the ball over again.  This one wasn’t all his fault though as his pass was tipped at the line by Browns’ DT Alvin McKinley.  The pass fell into the waiting arms of Daylon McCutcheon for his second pick of the day, and the Steelers had turned the ball over 3 times in a less than 6 minute span!

At that point I almost lost it!  It wasn’t like the Steelers were getting their butts kicked!  They just kept shooting themselves in the foot!  I had some choice words for Maddox and Poteat at that point, but eventually I settled down and just kept hoping for a big momentum changing play.  Thankfully, that’s exactly what I got to see.

After forcing a Cleveland punt, a little bit of redemption happened for one Steeler player that had committed an early game gaffe.  Fielding the Chris Gardocki punt, the Rookie from Indiana and former All-American QB Antwaan Randle El took it back 66 yards for a TD!

It was simply poetry in motion as Randle El ran down the field on that gray, snowy, and overcast day.  It’s an image that will always be emblazoned into my brain, and outside of his TD strike in the Super Bowl, it’s the play I’ll always remember when I think of Antwaan and what he meant to the Steelers of the 2000’s.

Down 14-7 and with just under 10 minutes to play in the Half, the Steelers were right back in the game.  Heinz Field appeared pumped and the Steelers’ needed only one big play to get back into the game.  I was certainly optimistic and I began to relax a bit with the thought that Cleveland might be swallowed up by the momentum and Steelers’ crowd.

The Browns weren’t fazed and kept the Steelers Offense at bay for the rest of the Half.  And by the end of the 2nd Quarter they did what every good team does in the postseason: they scored within the Half’s final 2 minutes.  On two long passes to Johnson and 3rd Down Back Jamel White, Cleveland had the ball 1st and Goal inside the Steelers 2 yard line and appeared to have the Half’s final possession.  Yet instead of scoring an easy 7, they came away with only 3 due to some idiotic play-calling courtesy of their O.C. Bruce Arians.

In a completely asinine move that cost his team 4 points,  Arians called a gadget play that had Kevin Johnson as the QB.  What looked to be a throwback to Holcomb was snuffed out by the Steelers Defense and resulted in a huge loss that essentially killed the drive.  Still the 10 play 45 yard drive gave Cleveland a chance to score some points, and Phil Dawson booted a 31 yard Field Goal to make it 17-7 Cleveland with :49 seconds to go.  Despite their efforts, Pittsburgh couldn’t respond to Cleveland’s drive.  Jeff Reed’s 46 yard Field Goal attempt sailed wide left and Cleveland held a 10 point lead at Half Time.

Half Time I remember spending in my kitchen fixing myself a sandwich and wondering how the hell the Steelers could be losing by 10 points to Kelly Holcomb and the Cleveland Browns!  I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was turnovers and the Browns capitalizing on them.  Yet at 15 I was steamed and couldn’t comprehend how the Steelers could come up short to the team from “The Mistake by the Lake.”  I just hoped that the Steelers could turn it around as soon as the 2nd Half started.  Unfortunately, that old saying how “It always gets darkest before the dawn” applied to Steeler Nation in the early moments of the 2nd Half.

Going 3 and Out on their opening possession was terrible enough to watch for any Steelers fan.  Then Tom Rouen’s crappy punt was fielded by Dennis Northcutt who returned the kick 59 yards to the Steelers’ 14 yard line!  Holcomb went right to work as he had all day, and eventually found Northcutt from 15 yards out on the same drive for a TD to make the score 24-7 with just over 12 minutes to play in the 3rd Quarter.

After the Northcutt TD, my Mom left to go to the Mall with my Sister because she had to take a break from watching the game.  She usually gets nervous during games, and honestly I couldn’t blame her for leaving.  I was a glutton for punishment that day, and in my mind I figured “What the Hell?  It can’t get any worse.”  Down 24-7, it looked pretty damn bleak for the Steelers for any of you that remember.

One ironic thing about the play though was that the cocky Northcutt was shown by N.F.L. Films yelling to the crowd: “We be in Oakland next week!”  Honestly, the dude had good reason, but the game wasn’t over yet.  I’ll never forget though the feeling I had at the time that if the Defense could make one or two big plays, the Steelers’ Offense would awaken from its slumber and began their onslaught against the Browns’ Defense.

Thankfully, that play happened courtesy of Steeler Safety Mike Logan.  When the Browns had the ball inside Steeler territory later in the Quarter, Holcomb made his biggest mistake of the day.  Logan stepped in front of Kevin Johnson’s slant pattern and gave the Steelers new life!  His return to the Steelers’ 40 really got the crowd back into the game, and I’ll never forget jumping up and down in my basement because of the magnitude of the play

So with a Quarter and a half to play, Maddox led the Offense down the field.  When he finally drove them inside the Browns’ 10 yard line, Plaxico Burress put his stamp on the drive and illustrated why he was such a fantastic athlete.  Maddox fired a 6 yard TD pass to Plaxico, who tight-roped himself in the back of the end zone for the score.  Then in a move that really ended up costing the Browns, Butch Davis challenged the play and gave up a Time Out.  But more on that later.

All the Steelers downtrodden Secondary needed was a stop as they were only down 24-14.  Unfortunately, Bruce Arians had other thoughts in mind and kept attacking the Steelers through the air.  Holcomb threw a 43 yard pass to Andre’ Davis and the Browns were suddenly on the outskirts of Field Goal range.  Luckily, the Steelers Defense held tough and Phil Dawson booted a 24 yard Field Goal to make the score 27-14 right after the 4th Quarter had started.

Maddox and the Offense “nutted-up” though and went right to work.  Randle El had two nice catches, including a 30 yarder that got the ball deep inside Cleveland territory, and the Steelers were poised to strike.  Then from 3 yards out Maddox fired a pass that was tipped by Earl Holmes and Dwayne Rudd that fell into the arms of Jerame Tuman who was in the end zone!  It was incredible!  The Steelers were down 27-21 and still had a chance to win the game with just over 12 minutes to play!

I simply assumed Cleveland would fold under the pressure.  But Holcomb and Arians would not stop throwing!  After a nifty 23 yard run by William Green, Holcomb eventually turned a 3rd and 12 play from the Steelers’ 22 yard line into a TD throw to Andre’ Davis!  After they failed on their 2 point conversion try, the Browns found themselves ahead 33-21 with 10 minutes and change to play!

In the immediate aftermath of the play I couldn’t even speak.  Then when the Steelers drive was halted after an Orpheus Roye Sack, it really seemed awful.  Nothing it appeared could help the Steelers by the time they got the ball back with just over 5 minutes to play.

But as he did so many times that season, Tommy Maddox didn’t quit.  Maddox started the first of two scoring drives at his own 23 yard line.  Using Ward effectively and taking advantage of idiotic Cleveland penalties (Robert Griffith tried to decapitate Ward on one play), Maddox finally drove the Steelers inside the Cleveland Red Zone and found Ward for a 5 yard TD pass!

This was a play that I will always remember as being vintage Hines Ward.  Not only did he catch it on 3rd and Goal, but Hines had 4 Browns around him and got rocked when he caught it at the Goal Line.  It’s plays like that which should make him a 1st Ballot Hall of Famer in addition to his amazing career statistics and achievements.

Another funny thing happened at that point.  My Mom and Sister came home from their Mall/Shopping outing and found me almost breathless and happy that the Steelers had gotten themselves back into the game!  It was a moment of pure excitement for me because I felt like I had watched something that many Steelers fans around the country may not have: an epic comeback attempt!

Still down 33-28, the Steelers Defense needed to step up because Cleveland was poised to win the game with 1 or 2 First Downs and milk the clock.  But luckily, with just over 3 minutes to play, Bruce Arians’ play-calling and Dennis Northcutt’s karmatic experience played right into the Steelers’ hands.

Arians called a run on 1st Down and Green got 3 yards.  Decent enough.  Then he dialed up a bomb to Quincy Morgan that Dewayne Washington defended beautifully!  Why the bomb?!  I have no idea.  They could have gone intermediate or short and killed the Steelers in their zone on two nice and easy pass plays, or even gone to the run to chew clock.

Yet in spite of Arians’ awful time-management skills, Dennis Northcutt should be considered the “goat” of this game.  On a pass play where he was wide open at his own 45 Northcutt dropped a cake-easy pass on 3rd Down!  Had he caught it, the game would have essentially been over.  But Northcutt’s drop stopped the clock with over 2 and a half minutes left.

At that point, I knew.  I knew the game was over.  I knew Maddox would do it.  The Comeback Player of the Year would lead the Comeback of the year for the Steelers.  It was too storybook to fail.  I was right!

With 2:35 to go, Tommy went to work again with the game on the line.  Like he had done all day and all season long, Maddox went right to his main targets in Burress and Ward who performed like the Pro Bowlers they were that season.  Cleveland could do nothing with 3 man rushes and Maddox picked them apart.

Then 58 seconds to go the Steelers faced a 2nd and Goal from the 3 yard line.  There was still plenty of time to go, and Offensive Coordinator Mike “Inspector Gadget” Mularkey dialed up the perfect play-call: Draw to Fu!  And by Fu I mean RB Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala.  Maddox took the snap, handed to Fu, and Fu bowled his way into the end zone with just over 50 seconds left!

At that point I lost it.  I ran upstairs and started high-fiving my Mom and yelling “Fu!!!!!!!!!!!” all over my house!  The Steelers had come back from 17 down in the 3rd Quarter, and 12 down with 10 minutes to take the lead!

I couldn’t celebrate too much, because the Steelers still needed to convert the 2 point conversion.  I only saw the aftermath and replay of the 2 pointer because I had ran upstairs, but “Inspector Gadget” drew up a pass play from Randle El to Tuman that worked beautifully and put the Steelers ahead 36-33!

I watched Cleveland’s final drive from my Parents’ living room because I didn’t want to miss a thing.  To his credit Holcomb marched the Browns to midfield and with 7 seconds left spiked the ball around his own 45 yard line to stop the clock after a completion to Northcutt.

All I can remember about what took place next was just standing up, hands clasped together, and just focused on the t.v. screen.  Holcomb ( who went 26 for 43 for 429 yards and 3 TD’s) took the snap and found Andre King in the middle of the field.  King darted as fast as he could towards the sideline, but to no avail.  Time had ran out on the Browns who were left with nothing at the Steelers 29 yard line except despair and crushed dreams.

The Steelers on the other hand celebrated one of the craziest postseason wins in franchise history.  It was a fitting way for them to end that season at home, and I wish I could have been there to celebrate the unbridled and raw emotion that came pouring out from the Heinz Field stands.

Kudos needs to go to the entire Steelers Offense (especially in the 2nd Half).  Maddox set franchise playoff records by going 30 for 48 for 367 yards and 3 TD’s.  The O-Line only gave up 3 sacks after abandoning the run in the 2nd Half.  But the real stats monsters were Ward, Burress, and Randle El.  Those 3 combined for 22 catches for 289 yards and 2 rec TD’s with Randle El’s return TD.  It was truly a great day for the team that scored 29 points in the 2nd Half and 22 in the final Quarter.  Moreover, ILB Kendrell Bell played that entire game on essentially one leg with his badly injured ankle.  His above and beyond performance should not be lost in the annals of history.

At 15, I was happy beyond all reason in the aftermath of that game.  The Steelers had come through and moved to the next round of the Playoffs.  Despite their loss the following week, I for one will never forget how magical that comeback on January 5th was.  Whenever they play the Browns I immediately think of this game and the rainbow of emotions I experienced as a fan during it.  It was truly a game to remember.

Interesting Factoid

Before I forget, I thought it would be nice for me to talk about a fantastic tradition that started during this game.  This was the first one where the P.A. played “Renegade” when the Steelers were in need of a stop!  In a game that had all the craziness in the world up to that point and was arguably the most heart-stopping in Heinz Field’s then-short history, it’s only fitting that this comeback specific tradition was started then and there.

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