- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

The odds are stacked against Cleveland in today's AFC first-round playoff game at Pittsburgh.
The Steelers (10-5-1) have beaten the Browns five straight times over the last three years and are 6-0 against the AFC North this season. And Cleveland is without starting quarterback Tim Couch, who broke his leg in last week's victory over Atlanta.
But the Browns, 6-2 on the road and 9-7 overall in just their fourth season since their 1999 renaissance as an expansion team, aren't fazed even though Couch's replacement, Kelly Holcomb, has started just three career games and none on the road.
"Maybe the first part of the season was a blessing in disguise [Holcomb started the first two games when Couch was out with an injured elbow]," Browns coach Butch Davis said. "Kelly played well, and the team got a chance to see what he could do."
Holcomb actually was the more effective passer this season. He was 44 of 69 for 524 yards and five touchdowns in his starts and would have won both if not for linebacker Dwayne Rudd's premature helmet toss that cost Cleveland a victory over Kansas City.
"Sometimes you only get one shot in life, so you have to make the most of it," Holcomb, 29, said of his first playoff start. "It's a great opportunity."
Holcomb's Pittsburgh counterpart, Tommy Maddox, is an even better story. Denver's first-round choice in the 1992 draft, Maddox bombed out with the Broncos, the Los Angeles Rams and the New York Giants and was out of the NFL from 1996 to 1999. He revived his career in 2000 in the Arena League, then was the MVP of the XFL before joining the Steelers in 2001.
Maddox replaced the struggling Kordell Stewart in Week3 against the Browns, rallying Pittsburgh to a 16-13 overtime triumph.
Maddox, 31, went on to set a team record with a 62.1 completion percentage and led the Steelers to a 7-3-1 mark despite missing two games with a spinal cord contusion that at first left him with no feeling in his arms or legs.
The quarterback situation is far from the only thing these ancient rivals this is their 102nd meeting have in common. Fans in each Rust Belt city love their team and despise the other. Cleveland's last playoff game in its original incarnation was a loss at Pittsburgh, and its first game back in the NFL was against the Steelers.
The Browns have made the playoffs 13 times since their last (NFL) title in 1964. The Steelers have claimed 10 postseason berths but haven't won a Super Bowl since 1979 (they lost the 1995 game) despite being the AFC's top seed three times and playing host to four conference title games under 11th-year coach Bill Cowher, a former Browns player and assistant. The host Steelers were stunned by New England in the 2001 AFC Championship game.
"Last year we took things for granted and that hurt us," Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress said. "We were already thinking Super Bowl. Now we're taking it one day at a time."
Hines Ward, who has combined with Burress for Steelers records of 190 catches, 2,654 yards and 19 touchdowns, said not being the AFC favorite is a plus.
"We were picked in every newspaper and magazine I saw to go to the Super Bowl," Ward said. "Then we fell off and now we're the team nobody is talking about. Everybody is talking about the [New York] Jets and Oakland. That's how we want it. Talk about those guys and maybe we'll creep up on somebody and end up in the Super Bowl."
Despite slipping from first to ninth in rushing this season, Pittsburgh should be able to run against Cleveland's 27th-ranked run defense.
The bigger question is whether the Browns' revived ground game can make any headway against the Steelers, who led the NFL in run defense for the second straight year.
Halfback William Green had just 26 yards on 11 carries in Cleveland's pair of three-point losses to Pittsburgh, but the No.1 pick ran wild with 726 yards and five touchdowns over the past seven games (five victories).
And the Steel Curtain isn't as stout as it used to be. Pittsburgh, which had the top defense in 2001, was seventh this season.
After allowing just 212 points last season, the Steelers surrendered 345, their most in 14 years. They gave up at least 30 points six times.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide