Wild-card pair: 2 combacks

Steelers' Maddox copies Elway, 36-33

Former Broncos backup dispels Browns' 24-7 lead

Nfl Playoffs

January 06, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH - The NFL's comeback kid eyed a piece of history and made a memorable mark of his own yesterday.

Paying homage to his one-time mentor while conjuring up a bitter memory from the Browns' playoff past, quarterback Tommy Maddox led one of Pittsburgh's greatest comebacks, rallying the Steelers from a 17-point second-half deficit to deliver a dramatic 36-33 AFC wild-card triumph over Cleveland at Heinz Field.

Maddox, a one-time apprentice to John Elway, followed the former Denver Broncos quarterback's footsteps when he marched the Steelers on a 61-yard, last-minute touchdown drive against the Browns.

Trailing 33-28 with 2:35 remaining, Maddox stood in the shotgun and completed five of six passes for 58 yards to move Pittsburgh to the 3-yard line. Steelers running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala finished off the largest come-from-behind victory in the franchise's storied playoff history by scoring on a 3-yard draw and giving Pittsburgh its first lead at 36-33 with 54 seconds remaining.

Before the drive, Maddox couldn't help but think about Elway. After the drive, the Browns were haunted again by their past, having lost in a heartbreaking fashion similar to the end of the January 1987 AFC championship game when Elway performed the improbable heroics.

While Elway delivered The Drive, Maddox now has The Comeback.

"It was a privilege to play behind John for a couple of years, and I learned a lot from him," said Maddox, 31, who carried the Steelers back from an 11-point deficit to defeat the Ravens last week.

"I've seen him pull games out that we had no business winning. You have a mentality of keep fighting and good things will happen."

Winners of four straight, the third-seeded Steelers (11-5-1) advance to the AFC divisional round, where they will play at the second-seeded Tennessee Titans (11-5) on Saturday.

Cleveland lost to the Steelers by three points for the third time this season. No stranger to down-to-the-wire games, the Browns were nevertheless still in shock after failing to hold onto a 24-7 third-quarter lead against their AFC North rival.

"I can't believe this," safety Earl Little said. "I just can't believe this happened to us."

The Steelers' comeback confidence stems from Maddox, who incidentally was voted the league's Comeback Player of the Year last week.

Entering the second half behind 10 points, Maddox pulled his teammates to the side and told them, "If there's anybody who doesn't think we can win, go back into the locker room." But the words didn't take shape until the last four minutes of the third quarter, when the Steelers started chipping at their 24-7 deficit.

Maddox led the turnaround. The first-time playoff starter began the game 8-for-18 for 116 yards and two interceptions. He finished it by going 22-for-30 for 251 yards and three touchdowns.

An offense that had not scored in its first eight drives switched to its "Tommy Gun" attack to reach the end zone on four of its last five drives. Working primarily out of the shotgun, Maddox led touchdown drives of 71, 65, 77 and 61 yards.

"[Maddox] epitomizes a lot about this team," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "When he makes a bad throw, he shakes it off. Guys are out there making plays for him. They are playing hard for him. The term for this football team is resiliency."

Resiliency and patience defined the game-winning six-play drive.

Starting at their 39, the Steelers jump-started the series with the biggest play - a 24-yard pass to Plaxico Burress in the middle of Cleveland's zone.

After an incompletion, Maddox hit Hines Ward and Burress on out routes along the right sideline to move Pittsburgh into the red zone while stopping the clock. Ward then caught a short hitch at the 3-yard line, and the Steelers called timeout.

Still in the shotgun, Pittsburgh caught the Browns off-guard as Fuamatu-Ma'afala only needed to break one tackle before scoring on a surprising draw call with 54 seconds remaining.

"This is one of those wins that you can see happening and you are just hoping that it ends the way it was going," Cowher said. "I thought we scored too early."

Cleveland quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns as a replacement for injured Tim Couch, tried to get the Browns in field-goal range. Three short completions inched Cleveland to Pittsburgh's 45-yard line with 19 seconds left.

Holcomb connected on a 16-yard pass to Andre King, who dived out of bounds as time expired. Instead of attempting a potential game-tying 46-yard field goal, the Browns were denied their first road playoff win since 1969.

"I was already in Oakland," said receiver Kevin Johnson, referring to the Browns' next game if they had won.

The Steelers' secondary took its cue from its offense.

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