After going way back to the 1974 playoffs last week, I decided to save on plutonium and only travel back 15 years to one of the craziest Steeler playoff games ever. So join me as we head back to a time when Gollum impressions were in full gear as movie-goers flocked to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in droves, listeners had no problem finding Eminem’s Lose Yourself pulsing through their speakers of choice, President George W. Bush was nearing the second half of his first term in office and calling for healthcare reform and Ohio State shocked Miami at the Fiesta Bowl 31-24 to win the National Title.
Meanwhile, another pigskin team from the Buckeye State was exceeding expectations as well. On January 5, 2003, the Cleveland Browns were making their first playoff appearance in eight seasons since their first ever playoff matchup with their longtime turnpike rivals, a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This time around, Bill Belichick and Vinny Testeverde were long gone and Butch Davis and Kelly Holcomb were leading the charge against Pittsburgh in a snowy first round clash.
After shutting down the veteran Holcomb, starting in his fifth game as a pro, the Steelers took over on offense in their first drive with a 50-yard run by Amos Zeroue. But on the very next play, Tommy Maddox was intercepted by Daylon McCutcheon on the Browns 22. Holcomb struck quickly by hitting a streaking Kevin Johnson for 21. The rookie William Green took the ball in from the one for a 7-0 lead just 1:16 into the game.
16 seconds into the second quarter, future Steeler Chris Gardocki punted and Louis Sanders blind-sided Antwaan Randle-El, forcing him to cough it up at the Steelers 32. On the very next play, Dennis Northcutt beat Hank Poteat for the touchdown. 14-0 Cleveland. Poteat was playing for starter Chad Scott, who was out with an injured hand.
The Steelers took over and started moving the ball well. But on the Browns 25, Maddox was intercepted again by McCutcheon after his ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage by Dwayne Rudd. However the Browns were forced to punt. Antwaan Randle El, who Cowher told that he “owed him one” after the turnover, paid his debt quickly by going down the right sideline for a 66-yard touchdown
It was the first ever punt return for a touchdown in the playoffs in Pittsburgh history. 14-7 Browns.
Towards the end of the first half the Browns drove down the field to the Steeler one. But Holcomb get sacked by Joey Porter for a 15-yard loss. After a 31-yarder by Phil Dawson to widen the Cleveland lead, Jeff Reed lined up for a 46-yarder to tighten up the game, but he missed to end the half. 17-7 Brownies.
To start the third, the Steelers’ Tom Rouen punted to Northcutt, who returned the ball 59 yards to the Steelers 15. Three plays later, Northcutt’s second touchdown of the day made the score 24-7 with 12:11 to play in the third. Steelers fans were starting to pack their gear.
Safety Mike Logan owed Cowher one too. After getting nailed for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Holcomb to extend a drive, Logan intercepted the former Colt backup quarterback a few plays later with 7:35 remaining in the third. On the ensuing drive, Maddox conjured up the magic that was so indicative of his 2002 season and drove the Steelers down the field. “Tommy Gun” hit a jumping and balletic Plaxico Burress for the six-yard score. It was now 24-14 with 3:50 to go in the third.
After a Browns drive down to the Steeler seven stalled, the Browns settled for 24-yard Dawson field goal, a mere eight seconds into the third. At 27-14, more than a few fans started to file out. Something you should never, ever do.
In a nervous moment for Pittsburgh, Randle El (who was on fire the entire drive) caught his third pass of the drive and fumbled on the two-yard line and it looked like the Browns had recovered. However the call was reversed on the field when No. 82 was ruled down by contact. Moments later with 12:28 left in the fourth, Maddox had another ball tipped at the line of scrimmage by Dwayne Rudd, but he had enough on it to find Jerame Tuman in the back of the Endzone for the touchdown. It was now 27-21 Cleveland. Fans in the parking lot circled back to try and re-enter to no avail.
With 10:17 to play, the Browns extended their lead when the red-hot Holcomb threw another touchdown pass, this time to André Davis from 22 out. The Browns went for two, but Holcomb’s pass to Quincy Morgan was well-defended by Deshea Townsend. 33-21 Cleveland. It was looking bleak again.
With 5:30 left, the Steelers get the ball back at their own 23 and frantically moved down the white-speckled Heinz Field turf. A couple of minutes later, Maddox threw incomplete on third down, but Robert Griffith hit Hines Ward helmet-to-helmet and was penalized. It was the third first-down due to penalties on the drive. 33-28 Cleveland.
With 3:11 to play, Maddox threw into traffic on the goal line on third and goal from the five, but Hines Ward came up with the clutch grab for the touchdown. After a quick three-and-out the Steelers got the ball back 46 ticks later, just inside their own 40 after a punt.
Maddox (30-48 for 367 yards and 3 TDs) drove the Steelers down the field and with 54 seconds remaining, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala took the ball in from the three for a 34-33 lead. The 2PC attempt was interesting as Hines Ward lined up at QB, but Randle El took the direct snap, rolled right and found Tuman for a 36-33 lead. The Steelers played over 59 minutes of football before finally taking your first lead of the game.
Holcomb (26/43 for 429 yards and 3 scores) only got his offense down to the Steeler 30 as time expired, denying Dawson a chance at a tie.
The Steelers won one of the most exciting games in their history and the remaining fans rejoiced. With Jerome Bettis on the bench and behind Maddox, Randle El, Ward, Burress, Zeroue, Kendrell Bell, Jason Gildon and James Farrior...the Steelers pulled it out. They would lose in dramatic fashion the next week in Tennessee, but this remains a joyous Steeler classic.
I was at West Virginia Steeler Central with my buddy Gene at my friend Tom Regan’s house. Tom’s house was the gathering place every season for Steelers games and about ten to fifteen people gathered in a small space to watch the game...except Tom who was at Heinz Field. We laughed as one of Tom’s buddies, a Browns fan, called in the fourth quarter proclaiming victory. That call inspired my motto, “You never celebrate until there are zeroes on the clock”.