By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Cleveland Browns walked the edge every week, tempting fate and defying logic in a season that grew stranger with each game.
On Sunday, the Browns tumbled and nothing could stop their fall.
Leading by 17 points late in the third quarter and by 12 with just over three minutes left, Cleveland couldn't put Pittsburgh away and lost 36-33 to the Steelers in a wild AFC wild-card game.
The Browns have lost to their hated rival many times before. None hurt like this.
"Unbelievable," cornerback Corey Fuller said. "We blew it."
Cleveland's first playoff appearance since 1994 ended like so many before it for the Browns, who still haven't won a postseason game on the road since 1969.
The Drive. The Fumble. And now, The Bumble.
"This hurts," said receiver Dennis Northcutt, who dropped a third-down pass with 2:42 left that would have iced it. "This burns inside. It's going to be tough to move on from this. It's going to hurt for a while."
The Browns wasted a phenomenal performance by Kelly Holcomb, who passed for 429 yards and three touchdowns while filling in for the injured Tim Couch.
"We stopped their running game, but he damn near tried to beat us himself," Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter said of Holcomb.
The two-hour bus ride back to Cleveland figured to be painful for the Browns, who overcame injuries, wild finishes and the death of owner Al Lerner during the regular season to make the playoffs for the first time since their rebirth.
On the way home, the Browns can ponder a running game that managed just 38 yards. They also can think about some dumb penalties, two dropped balls and all the plays they could have made, but didn't.
"A lot of couldas, shouldas and ifs," offensive tackle Ryan Tucker said. "We had our chances."
With Holcomb playing like a 10-year playoff veteran in just his fourth career NFL start, the Browns seemed to be in command with a 27-14 lead with 14:52 left.
Cleveland was bound for a second-round matchup with the Oakland Raiders when the Steelers rallied for 22 points.
"To be honest with you, I thought we were already in Oakland," receiver Kevin Johnson said. "But it's not over until it's over, we should know that better than anybody."
The Browns have nobody to blame but themselves.
Cleveland's defense aided the Steelers' fourth-quarter comeback with several costly penalties -- three in a span of four plays -- and cornerback Anthony Henry dropped a possible interception on the scoring drive that brought Pittsburgh to 33-28.
As Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox was being sacked near midfield, Browns linebacker Dwayne Rudd was called for a 5-yard holding penalty downfield.
Henry had a chance to put the Steelers away on the next play, but Maddox's pass and Cleveland's season slipped through his hands.
Cornerback Lewis Sanders was then whistled for illegal contact on Pittsburgh's next snap, and safety Robert Griffith's helmet-on-helmet hit on Hines Ward gave the Steelers a first down at the 17.
"I didn't see the replay," Griffith. "Maybe my shoulder came up and got him, but I didn't hit him with my helmet. I know that. That's the kind of call they get at home."
Pittsburgh scored two plays later, yet despite the calamity of errors, Cleveland got the ball back with 3:06 left needing only to make a few first downs to run out the clock.
After a 3-yard run and an incomplete pass, Holcomb threw a perfect pass to Northcutt for an apparent first down. But Northcutt, who had two TD catches and returned a punt 59 yards, couldn't hold on.
"I took my eye off it for a second," Northcutt said. "I just dropped it."
When the final seconds of their unpredictable season ticked off the clock, the stunned Browns walked slowly toward their locker room.
"It's disappointing," Browns coach Butch Davis said. "This team accomplished some goals, but it's disappointing to have it end the way it ended."
For the Browns, it was the only way.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)