Humbled Steelers await Browns

After Pats loss at home last year, Pittsburgh isn't taking victory for granted

NFL Playoffs

January 05, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, this year's playoffs mark a return as well as redemption.

In the postseason for the second straight year, the Steelers are looking to amend a similar mistake in today's AFC wild-card game at Heinz Field, where they are eight-point favorites against the Cleveland Browns. It was only a year ago when top-seeded Pittsburgh was upset at home by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

This time, as the conference's third seed, the Steelers admit their stature and attitude have been knocked down a few pegs.

"I think we're playing right now with more a sense of urgency," safety Lee Flowers said. "We played at such a high level last year, winning 13 games. Now, we're more humble. We were so up and down this year.

"But that part of the season is over with. Thank God we got into the playoffs and have a second chance. I think we learned a lot from last year. We can't take everything for granted."

Besides the switch in mind-set, Pittsburgh (10-5-1) enters the playoffs with a fresh look because of a change at quarterback. And the Browns (9-7) actually prompted the move.

On Sept. 29, the 0-2 Steelers were losing to Cleveland in the fourth quarter when coach Bill Cowher put Maddox in for Kordell Stewart.

Maddox marched Pittsburgh 77 yards on seven plays to tie the score with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with two minutes left. Then, the Steelers won in overtime after deflected and blocked field-goal attempts, and a new leader emerged.

Now, Maddox records another new beginning against Cleveland. At age 31, Maddox will be making his first NFL playoff start.

"Everybody wants to play in the playoffs," said Maddox, who has completed a team-record 62.1 percent of his passes for 2,836 yards, 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. "Those are the games everybody shoots for and everybody wants to play in, so I'm very excited about it. It's taken 10 years to get here and I'm going to enjoy it and savor every moment I can."

The Steelers aren't the only ones looking to rectify the past.

The Browns lost twice to Pittsburgh this season, but the AFC's sixth-seeded team will be giving the Steelers a different offensive look with Kelly Holcomb at quarterback and William Green at running back.

Tim Couch's fractured right leg means Holcomb will face the Steelers for the first time. And Green, averaging 103.7 yards over the past seven games, is no longer the struggling rookie who played against Pittsburgh earlier this season.

"They know that William Green is running the ball and he's going to give them all he's got," Browns receiver Quincy Morgan said. "He's going to hit the hole hard. If it's a defensive back, he's going to stiff-arm them; if it's a linebacker, he's going to lower his head.

"With Holcomb, they know there's not going to be a drop-off. We still have a general out there leading us down the field."

Pittsburgh, which has the top-ranked run defense, is more concerned about Holcomb than Green.

"[Green's] running the ball with a lot more confidence than he did in the past," Flowers said. "At the same time, I think we've been very good at stopping the run. We're just trying to concentrate on the passing game. That's what's been hurting us the past couple weeks. If we stop the passing game, I think we have a good chance to win this game."

Cleveland, though, is not intimidated in its first playoff game since 1994, when Art Modell owned the Browns and Bill Belichick coached them.

Despite this season's two losses to Pittsburgh, the Browns are coming in confident because each meeting with the AFC North champions was decided by a field goal.

Plus, the Steelers are banged up. Running back Jerome Bettis will play with a sore knee. Cornerback Chad Scott has a broken hand. And linebacker Kendrell Bell reinjured an ankle.

"I'm glad we've got Pittsburgh," Cleveland receiver Dennis Northcutt said. "It's a team that's in our division, a team I think we can beat."

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