By ALAN ROBINSON, AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) - When Tommy Maddox was a rookie backup to John Elway, he was taught a valuable lesson: Never think any deficit can't be overcome, never think any game is lost.
He also learned something else from Elway: How to lead a dramatic playoff comeback victory against the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns did almost everything possible Sunday to beat rival Pittsburgh in their first playoff game since returning to the NFL in 1999. They built a big lead in a hostile stadium, passed the Steelers' depleted secondary silly, took the crowd out of the game and seized the momentum.
Everything, that is, except one: They gave Maddox a chance -- the one thing no NFL team would give him for years.
Maddox, aptly chosen as the Comeback Player of the Year only a few days before, drove the Steelers to four touchdowns in the final 19 minutes and a stirring 36-33 victory over the disbelieving Browns in the greatest playoff comeback in team history.
Even if it was only the second best comeback of the day; the 49ers overcame a 24-point deficit later to beat the Giants 39-38.
Until Maddox rallied them from 17 points down, the Steelers had never come from more than seven points down in the postseason, against Denver in 1984. Maybe it wasn't quite as dramatic or meaningful as Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception in 1972, but it was a game they will replay for years.
And one the Browns will regret for years, as evidenced by the stony silence in a locker room they couldn't wait to escape.
"Don't anybody write the Steelers won it," Corey Fuller said. "We gave it to them."
Kelly Holcomb couldn't have played much better as the injured Tim Couch's replacement, throwing for 429 yards and three touchdowns, two to Dennis Northcutt and one to Andre' Davis, as the Browns opened leads of 14-0, 24-7 and 33-21.
Holcomb's yardage total was the third most in an NFL postseason game, eclipsed by only Cleveland's Bernie Kosar (489 yards, 1986) and San Diego's Dan Fouts (433, 1981).
But the Browns' running game deserted them against the NFL's top rushing defense as rookie William Green gained only 30 yards on 25 carries. That meant the Browns had to keep throwing even while leading comfortably, repeatedly stopping the clock and giving the Steelers time to mount their comeback.
"We had plenty of opportunities to put them away," Browns linebacker Earl Holmes said. "We had them just where we wanted them."
With comeback expert Maddox on their side, the Steelers -- who rallied from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Baltimore only the week before -- were certain they had a chance.
"He took the hard way to get here -- from Arena Football to the XFL to here," receiver Terance Mathis said. "The man was partially paralyzed one week. Boos aren't going to bother Tommy. When you have confidence on your side, you can do a lot of things."
Now, Maddox will return to the scene of the scariest moment of his career for Saturday's divisional game against Tennessee. It was there on Nov. 17 that linebacker Keith Bulluck's seemingly innocent hit briefly left Maddox paralyzed.
Maddox wasn't about to dwell on such an unpleasant moment after such an emotional victory.
"If I had a problem with wanting to go back to Tennessee, I would not have wanted to win this game so badly," he said. "That is the next stop in the journey."
Maddox, repeatedly ducking Cleveland's pass rush to make accurate throws downfield, threw touchdown passes of 6 yards to Plaxico Burress, 3 yards to tight end Jerame Tuman and 5 yards to Hines Ward to get the Steelers to 33-28.
Maddox, 30-of-48 for 367 yards, then went 4-of-5 during the decisive drive that ended with Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala's go-ahead 3-yard scoring run with 54 seconds left and a 2-point conversion throw from Antwaan Randle El to Tuman.
Even after all that, Holcomb almost got the Browns close enough to try a potential tying field goal. But time ran out as Andre King scrambled out of bounds at the Pittsburgh 29 following a 16-yard completion, and the Browns had yet another agonizing loss to add to their long list of playoff disappointments.
There was The Fumble against Denver in January 1987, The Drive by Elway's Broncos the following year and, now, The Comeback.
Maddox obviously learned well as Elway's backup in 1992.
"I was very fortunate to play behind John Elway and see all the things he was able to do in games we did not think we had a chance to win," Maddox said.
Especially because the Steelers have lost in this situation so often before -- four times since 1992 as a home playoff favorite. No wonder a relieved and visibly spent coach Bill Cowher ran down a stadium runway after the game, threw off his cap and began yelling.
Defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen summed up the visible sense of relief by saying, "That's probably the most fear I've ever had playing the game of football -- the fear of losing."
Maddox, who has displayed no apparent fear during this remarkable comeback season, now wouldn't be surprised to get a phone call from a man named Elway.
"I hope he would be proud of this," Maddox said. "I can honestly say I thought about him on the sidelines one time. I learned a lot from him. I've seen him pull games out we had no business winning and we were able to do that today."
Notes: The Steelers swept all three games from the Browns, all by three points. ... It was Cleveland's first playoff game since a 29-9 loss to Pittsburgh in January 1995, before the former Browns relocated to Baltimore. ... Steelers LB Kendrell Bell, not expected to play because of a sprained ankle, was a key to stopping the Browns' running game before re-injuring the ankle in the fourth quarter. His status will be updated Monday. ... The Browns are 0-8 in road playoff games since beating Dallas in 1969.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)