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

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"Bad Ma'afala" embraces Maddox after the winning TD!, Image Courtesy of life.com

Before I begin another Wednesday History article I’d just like to say one thing: I have watched and been treated to some tremendous post-season performances by the Steelers over the last two decades.  That being said, there is one playoff game and one gutty performance by the Steelers that I continue to hold near and dear to my heart as a member of Steeler Nation.

Since it is “Browns Week” I thought it would be a great idea to take a look back at the crazy Wild Card Playoff Game that took place between the Steelers and the Browns at Heinz Field in January 2003.  So like every Wednesday, hit that “Continue Reading” button and let’s take a walk down memory lane:

Introduction

2002 Steelers

2002 was a roller-coaster year that started with great expectations for the Steelers.  Having advanced to the A.F.C. Championship in 2001, the Steelers were primed to finish what they started the previous season as the 2002 season began.

Unfortunately, Pittsburgh stumbled out of the blocks like Lindsey Lohan on a bender.  The Steelers lost 3 of their first 4 games (Rich Gannon and Tom Brady destroyed the Steelers’ Defense in the First 2 and really gave the rest of the N.F.L. a blue-print to beating the Steelers) and benched Kordell Stewart in their Week 4 Win vs. the Browns due to Stewart’s erratic and ineffective play (he was gone the following season for those of you that remember).

Kordell was done with the franchise by the end of the 2002 season, Image Courtesy of life.com

Yet in a fairy-tale season, Pittsburgh’s backup QB and the XFL’s only MVP (that reference was for my buddy Corin) Tommy Maddox stepped in and began slinging the ball all around the field.

Maddox rejuvenated the Offense and earned “Comeback Player of the Year” honors with 2,836 passing yards and 20 TD’s in only 11 starts.  Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress earned Pro Bowl honors and both had over 1,300 yards receiving.  And Amos Zereoue and Jerome Bettis gained over 1,400 yards on the ground between them.

Despite their success on Offense, the Steelers’ once proud Defense was a bit of a “dumpster-fire” in 2002, especially their Secondary.  If they were to have any postseason success, the 10-5-1 A.F.C North Champions would need their Defense to come up big.  At the time it looked as if they would be able to dodge a bullet with Cleveland coming to Heinz Field for Wild Card Weekend.

2002 Browns

In their first (and sadly only) Postseason campaign since they have returned to the N.F.L., the Browns were a “Cinderella” team in every sense of the word.  Cleveland (9-7) was a young team that had snuck into the Playoffs as the 6th and final seed in the A.F.C. on the strength of two heart-stopping wins to close the season and had been playing inspired football since the death of their owner Al Lerner that October.

The Browns’ Defense (Coached by Former Pitt. Head man Foge Fazio) ranked 10th in the League that season and was showing signs of improvement as the season ended.  Future and former Steelers Earl Holmes (who led the team in Tackles) and Orpheus Roye helped to anchor the 2002 Browns’ Defense.

Couch's injury paved the way for Holcomb's opportunity, Image Courtesy of life.com

Cleveland’s Offense was led by QB Tim Couch who appeared to be turning a corner in his 4th N.F.L. season.  In 14 games, Couch had 2,842 yards passing and 18 TD’s.  Rookie RB William Green chipped in 1,000 yards from scrimmage and the WR corps consisted of youngsters Kevin Johnson, Dennis Northcutt (Go Cats!), Quincy Morgan (Super Bowl XL Champion w/Steelers), and Andre’ Davis.

Directing the Offense in his 2nd year as the Offensive Coordinator was none other than Bruce Arians!  Yes, that’s right Steelers fans, Brucey really had things cooking in Cleveland back in 2002!

Sadly, during Cleveland’s win in the final week of the regular season against Atlanta, Couch was injured, and backup Kelly Holcomb would have to close the year as the Browns’ QB.  Thus, a nicked-up Browns squad headed into Heinz Field as a heavy underdog and looking to shock the world.  And to their credit, the poor guys almost did it!

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