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The Loop

The last time the Cleveland Browns made the playoffs, they gave us the greatest game no one remembers

January 05, 2021

Andy Lyons

It’s Sunday, January 5th, 2003. The Cleveland Browns have just pulled up to a muddy, snow-slicked Heinz Field for the 2002 AFC Wild Card game, their only NFL playoff appearance in nine years and the first since returning from the Great Gridiron in the Sky. Their opponents are the loathed Pittsburgh Steelers, who would love nothing more than to put a premature end to their division rival’s rare glimmer of euphoria. Sound familiar? Well, it should, because on Sunday, January 10th, 2021, the Cleveland Browns will roll up to a frozen Heinz Field, fresh off an 18-year playoff drought, to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2020 AFC Wild Card, hoping for the first time, in a long time, that this year could maybe, just maybe be the year.

The names and faces have changed, of course. The Steelers will have presumptive NFL Comeback Player of the Year Ben Roethlisberger under center, instead of then NFL Comeback Player of the Year Tommy Maddox. This time, it will be Baker Mayfield shredding the Steelers secondary instead of Kelly Holcomb. But the similarities are eerie and, if we are lucky, predictive. Not because we’re Steelers fans or Browns haters (the Steelers would eventually win 36-33), but because Browns-Steelers 2003 is perhaps the greatest NFL playoff game no one remembers.

While just 27 degrees on the ol’ thermometer, things we’re considerably toastier at kickoff after a pregame jawing match between Joey Porter and Brant Boyer, and the Browns capitalized on the emotional mo. Scoring on the opening drives of both the first and second quarters, the Browns jumped out to a 14-0 lead before the Steelers’ Slash Jr. Antwaan Randle El, making up for a muffed punt moments earlier, scooped a Chris Gardocki punt off the turf, turned up the right sideline, and took it 66 yards to the house as the snow began to stream down. The Steelers were on the board, and that was just the start.

At halftime the Browns led 17-7 and, after a quick stop to start the third quarter, Dennis Northcutt reeled off a long punt return of his own, all the way down to the Steelers 15 yard line. Three plays later, Northcutt popped up again, catching his second TD of the day on a beautiful 15-yard fade from Holcomb to put the Browns up 24-7. What, as every post-The Drive Browns fan is genetically conditioned to ask, could possibly go wrong?

The answer, as it turns out, would come on the next drive, when Holcomb, slicing and dicing the Steelers defense once more, stared down a slant, allowing Mike Logan to undercut the route and make the pick. That woke up the slumbering beast known as Tommy “Gun” Maddox, who dinked and dunked down the field, culminating with a seven-yard TD toss to Plaxico Burress (Plax!) at the back of the end zone. It was the Steelers first offensive points of the day with 3:52 remaining in the third quarter.

That opened the absurdity floodgates. The Browns answered with a Phil Dawson field goal on the next drive, after throwing it on third and 1 from the Steelers’ five. Maddox then led the Steelers down field before Randle El seemingly coughed up his second fumble of the day inside the Browns’ five. Cleveland celebrated as if they had just recovered the clinching turnover, but referees had ruled Randle El down by contact, so the play could not be reviewed. Two plays later, the Steelers had cut the lead to 27-21. The Terrible Towels soared in the steel-gray sky.

Kelly Holcomb wasn’t done dealing just yet, however. A few chunk plays later, he hurled a 22-yard touchdown pass to And’re Davis on a play that should have been blown dead for delay of game. Butch Davis, clad in a weird leather-y brown poncho, made the international symbol for “go for two.” The Browns did not convert, leaving the door ajar for Mr.XFL himself, who drove down the field, and aided by a questionable personal foul call on a defenseless Hines Ward, drew the Steelers within five with 3:02 remaining.

Then, in a move straight out of the Kyle Shannahan playbook, the Browns lined up and went three-and-out in 19 seconds, taking deep shots on second and third down, including this sickening Dennis Northcutt drop on third and seven.

Needing a touchdown to win, there was no doubt. The Steelers marched relentlessly forward while Heinz Field erupted like a shook-up ketchup bottle, eventually capping their incredible comeback with a three-yard Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala rumble with 52 seconds remaining. Then, to add just a little extra salt in the wound, the Steelers went for two, direct snapping to Randle El, who tossed it to Jerame Tuma, adding a passing score to go with his punt return TD. Somewhere (read: the sideline) Slash was smiling.

The Browns still had one last chance, however, and with seven second remaining, Holcomb—who would end the day 26-43 for 429 yards and three touchdowns—connected with Andre King inside the Steelers 30. With the clock ticking toward zero, King scrambled toward the boundary trying to get out of bounds, but arrived a half second late. After a brief conferece, officials ruled that the clock had expired and the Steelers, led by three Tommy Maddox touchdowns in the last 19 minutes, had prevailed.

Cleveland Browns fans will hope for a different result on Sunday, but for the rest of us—for the neutrals, gunslingers, and chaos connoisseurs—we want it all. The special teams touchdowns, the officiating controversies, the 923 yards of total offense. We want a sequel to arguably the greatest Wild Card game ever, and we want it now.