Sunday Revivals/ Steelers and 49ers erase huge deficits to earn dramatic NFL playoff victories

Times Staff Writer

The rest of the world might not remember much from Tommy Maddox's days as a Denver Bronco, but it's clear Maddox didn't forget them.

Evidently, he learned quite a bit as the backup to John Elway, master of the fourth-quarter comeback.

"I can honestly say I thought about him one time on the sideline," Maddox said Sunday, after leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 36-33 playoff victory over Cleveland with two touchdown drives in the final 3:06. "It was a privilege to play behind him for a couple of years, and I learned a lot from him. I've seen him pull games out that we had no business winning. Somehow, some way, we were able to find a way to win today."

The Steelers, who will play at Tennessee on Saturday in a divisional game, trailed by as many as 17 points in the third quarter and didn't get a touchdown from their offense for the first 41 minutes. But, just like Pittsburgh's other two victories over the Browns this season, this game would be decided in the final minute.

Against a backdrop of lightly falling snow and swirling Terrible Towels, Maddox stepped back in the shotgun, spread his receivers from sideline to sideline, and picked the Cleveland secondary apart. He threw two touchdown passes to pull the Steelers within five points, then orchestrated a masterful six-play drive that ended when Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala plowed into the end zone from the three with 54 seconds remaining. Heinz Field shook to its rafters, and it got even louder when the Steelers -- who led for the first time all day -- successfully executed a two-point conversion pass from receiver Antwaan Randle El to tight end Jerame Tuman.

"I won a game in the XFL in double or triple overtime and it was exciting, but nothing ever like this," said Maddox, whose post-UCLA football odyssey included stops in the NFL, Arena Football League, and the ill-fated XFL, where, as quarterback of the Los Angeles Xtreme, he was MVP in the league's only season. After being cut by the Atlanta Falcons in 1997, he sold insurance for three years before being picked up by the AFL's New Jersey Red Dogs.

Maybe it was his playing-on-borrowed-time nonchalance that kept Maddox so cool Sunday, even after two of his first-half passes were intercepted by cornerback Daylon McCutcheon in Cleveland territory.

"He epitomizes a lot of this team," Steeler Coach Bill Cowher said of Maddox, who completed 30 of 48 passes for 367 yards. "He makes a bad throw, he forces one, he's fine. When he came back in he didn't stop making throws, he didn't stop taking chances."

Maddox wasn't the only Steeler to bounce back after a bad play or two. Randle El muffed a punt return early in the second quarter and Cleveland recovered on the Pittsburgh 21. Two plays later, the Browns scored to take a 14-0 lead. But five minutes later, Randle El fielded a return at shoe level, eluded several would-be tacklers and tore down the sideline for a 66-yard touchdown, Pittsburgh's only touchdown of the first half.

Early in the third quarter, the Browns increased their lead to 24-7, and Cleveland receivers were getting open 24/7. Quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who like Maddox was making his first start in the playoffs, threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns -- including 18 completions of 10 yards or longer.

Whereas Cleveland repeatedly caught Pittsburgh's young cornerbacks out of position, the Brown running game was a colossal failure. Rookie William Green, who had averaged 104 yards rushing in his last seven games, was just as ineffective as he was during his first nine, when he gained no more than 36 in a game.

"We knew the guy wasn't going to be able to run the ball on us," said linebacker Joey Porter, part of a Pittsburgh defense that limited Green to 30 yards in 25 carries. "Everybody said, 'Oh, the new emergence of this running back. He's so good, he's so good.' But we remembered him as being the same running back we played the previous time. The difference between this time and last time is he got the ball more."

For the Browns, it was their 13th game of the season decided in the final minute. And it was heartbreaking.

"I don't know that I've been as disappointed in a ballgame in an awful long time," Coach Butch Davis said.

The Steeler defense was bolstered by the return of linebacker Kendrell Bell, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the season finale against Baltimore and had to leave in the third quarter of that game. Bell, the 2001 defensive rookie of the year, got a shot of painkiller before the game and, with Cowher watching, had to go through a mini-workout to prove he was ready to play. He finished with nine tackles, second on his team to safety Lee Flowers, who had 10.

At one point when he was on the field late in the game, Flowers looked up to the giant screen on the scoreboard, which was showing classic moments from the Steeler-Brown rivalry. This game, he said, should get prominent play in that highlight reel for years to come.

"No doubt," he said, standing in a crowded locker room in a full-length mink coat. "This game is instantly in the top three, if not No. 1."

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