- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

The image was perhaps the most disturbing of the NFL season: Tommy Maddox lying motionless at the Coliseum in Nashville, doctors rushing to his aid as his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates watched in disbelief.

Eight weeks later, Maddox's strange odyssey comes full circle. The quarterback for whom the word "comeback" seems to apply to every aspect of his life returns to Tennessee, this time leading the Steelers (11-5-1) into today's AFC divisional playoff game against the Titans (11-5).

It's perfect symmetry, a sequence of events too good to be true. And Maddox, quite honestly, doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.

"It's just a story," he said earlier this week. "Everybody's got a story."

Maybe so, but few stories from 2002 can top Maddox's improbable one. The NFL's Comeback Player of the Year actually has produced three staggering comebacks in the last four months.

Comeback No.1: Maddox, the former first-round-bust, XFL MVP and insurance salesman, takes over as the Steelers' starting quarterback and injects life into what was turning into one of the league's biggest disappointments.

Comeback No.2: Maddox suffers a spinal concussion and is temporarily paralyzed from a Nov.17 hit by Tennessee linebacker Keith Bullock but returns after a two-week layoff to lead Pittsburgh to the AFC North title.

Comeback No.3: Down 17 points late in the third quarter to the Browns on Sunday, Maddox orchestrates the biggest rally in Steelers postseason history, resulting in a 36-33 victory over Cleveland and a date with the Titans.

The most significant of the three is his return from the horrific injury that had many wondering whether he would walk again, let alone play football. The thought of returning to the site of the incident, in the playoffs nonetheless, has to be weighing on Maddox's mind. Or does it?

"I never think about it all until y'all ask me about it," he insisted. "I've played four or five games since then. It doesn't matter what stadium you're in, what field you're on, it's all playing football. I really give no thoughts to it whatsoever at any time unless I'm asked about it."

Perhaps it is better for the Steelers that Maddox has no reservations about taking another hit from a Tennessee defender because Pittsburgh should have greater concerns entering this game. For instance, how to stop a team that has won 10 of its last 11 games, including that Nov.17 meeting 31-23.

And how to rebound from what, even before the injury, was Maddox's worst game of the season (three interceptions, a 44.9 passer rating).

"I'm probably more looking forward to going back for that reason," Maddox said. "Obviously, they played a great game the first time we went up there. We know the things we've got to do against them."

The Titans controlled every aspect of that game. Quarterback Steve McNair threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns and converted 12 of 19 third-down plays. Running back Eddie George had only 79 yards but scored two touchdowns and helped chew up the clock with 28 rushes. And the Tennessee defense held Pittsburgh's running game to 45 yards while forcing Maddox into his three interceptions.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher doesn't think his team had a magic plan to win that game.

"We simply played hard, that was all," Fisher said. "We didn't do anything out of character or completely change our scheme. We just played hard."

Whether such simple tactics work again remains to be seen, but Fisher surely has noticed how several other teams have attacked the Steelers this season through the air, against a banged-up and suspect secondary that allowed 409 net passing yards against Cleveland last week.

That said, Fisher also knows how a dramatic comeback like Pittsburgh's win over the Browns can spark a team to even greater heights. He witnessed it first-hand four years ago, when the Titans beat the Buffalo Bills with the "Music City Miracle" and went all the way to the Super Bowl.

"[The Steelers] definitely have momentum because of the comeback effort," Fisher said. "What happens in a case like that is the younger players on their team realize what the playoffs are all about. That's what happened to us against Buffalo."

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