Every week, we’ll take a look at one of the week’s matchups and reminisce about a previous meeting between the teams.
Steelers 36, Browns 33 (2002 AFC Wild Card Playoffs)
Since returning to the NFL in 1999 following a three-year hiatus of sorts (aka the franchise relocating to Baltimore), the Cleveland Browns has been from successful and that’s being kind. These current Browns have lost twice as many games (136) as they’ve won (68) in 13 seasons and even if they run the table this season, it still amounts to only 2 winning seasons and 1 playoff appearance since ‘99.
But on this January afternoon at Heinz Field, here were Butch Davis’ resilient team led by QB Kelly Holcomb, who would start the team’s first 2 games that season and then be thrust into the starter’s role for this contest when QB Tim Couch was injured again, this time in the regular-season finale against the Falcons. Of course, these days the Steelers were being led by reclamation project QB Tommy Maddox, who had supplanted a struggling Kordell Stewart early in the season and was putting together one of the great comeback stories. And when it was all said and done, these bitter rivals would combine to put 69 points on the board.
While Pittsburgh’s offense was more explosive than in recent seasons, its defense was not nearly as effective, most notably against the pass. And Davis and company didn’t waste any time trying to exploit this weakness as Holcomb came out throwing. After a penalty and an incompletion gave Cleveland a third and 14 at their own 16-yard line, Holcomb found WR Kevin Johnson down the right sidelines for an 83-yard gain and a 1-yard TD run by rookie RB William Green gave the Browns a 7-0 lead less than 2 minutes into the game. While the rest of the quarter remained scoreless, the Brown were soon in business again as Steelers’ WR/PR Antwaan Randle El muffed a punt at his own 32 and on the next play, Holcomb found WR Dennis Northcutt from 32 yards out to give Cleveland a stunning 14-0 lead. And things were getting worse for Bill Cowher’s team as Maddox was intercepted on the team’s next series by CB Daylon McCutcheon.
But Randle El was about to make amends and get the Steelers back in the game…for now. Pittsburgh’s defense forced a 3 and out, Browns’ P Chris Gardocki booted the ball to the rookie speedster and he brought it back 66 yards for the score to cut the Steelers’ deficit in half. But it would get worse before it got better for Cowher’s club as the Browns’ added a field goal just before halftime to extend the lead to 10 points. And after Pittsburgh went 3-and-out on their first possession of the third quarter, the Browns’ special teams made their own impact as Northcutt returned a punt 59 yards and three plays later, Holcomb found him for a 15-yard score and a 24-7 lead.
The Steelers would come back later in the quarter with a Maddox to Plaxico Burress score but the Steelers’ secondary continued to give up big plays. Holcomb responded with a 43-yard pass to WR Andre’ Davis which would eventually set up another Dawson field goal as Cleveland took a 13-point lead 2 plays into the final quarter. But now the fun would really begin. The Steelers drive 65 yards in 6 plays (Maddox to TE Jerame Tuman) to narrow the lead to 27-21, but here came Holcomb again, taking only 5 plays to cover 61 yards as he and Davis combined for a 22-yard score. But Davis opted to go for the 2-point conversion, which came up short. After the team traded scoreless possessions, Pittsburgh took over down by 12 with 5:30 to play. Maddox capped a 10-play, 77-yard drive with a 5-yard TD pass to WR Hines Ward to get Cowher’s club within 5 points, 33-28. On Cleveland’s next possession and on 3rd-and-12, Northcutt was wide open over the middle but dropped the pass and the Browns punted away. And it took Maddox and company just 6 plays to cover 61 yards, with backup RB Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala running 3 yards up the middle with :54 seconds to play to give the Steelers their first lead of the afternoon. And a tricky Randle El to Tuman 2-point conversion pass gave Pittsburgh a 3-point advantage. Holcomb, who would throw for 429 yards by game’s end (the fourth-most passing yards in a playoff game in NFL history), would drive his team to the Steelers’ 29-yard line as time ran out.
For Pittsburgh, it capped off one of the greatest comebacks in postseason annals. For the Browns, it was another frustrating loss in what has been a less-than-successful rebirth.