September 30, 2002 at 3:08 PM EST - Updated July 12 at 4:26 AM
By ALAN ROBINSON, AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) - A reliable closer has become increasingly important to major league teams. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher says there's no reason NFL teams shouldn't have one, too.
So with the game and his team's season possibly slipping away, Cowher benched quarterback Kordell Stewart and inserted backup Tommy Maddox with the Steelers trailing rival Cleveland 13-6 late in the fourth quarter Sunday.
Two long scoring drives and a totally unpredictable overtime later, the Steelers had an improbable 16-13 victory, Cowher had a quarterback controversy and the Browns had an all-but-certain win turn into a loss for the second time in a month.
"It's so much better to be 1-2 than 0-3," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "This was really big."
How big? It was only the fourth weekend of the NFL season, but the Steelers' comeback may have dramatically altered the AFC North race.
A Steelers' loss would have dropped them 2½ games behind Cleveland and left them with long odds of making the playoffs; only five NFL teams since 1970 made the postseason after starting 0-3. Instead, the Browns' lead is down to a half-game, a margin that could be erased in a week.
"In all three phases -- offense, defense, special teams -- we won the game," Browns linebacker Earl Holmes said. "To be honest, this was real tough."
As tough as their 40-39 season-opening loss to Kansas City, when Dwayne Rudd's celebratory helmet toss allowed the Chiefs to kick a game-winning field goal on the final play? Maybe not, but tough enough.
The Browns (2-2) took advantage of yet another Steelers special teams breakdown, Kevin Bentley's block of Josh Miller's punt, to lead 13-6 on Jamel White's 4-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
But with the Steelers down to their final possession, Maddox -- the former XFL star who was out of football from 1997-99 -- drove them 77 yards against an injury-thinned Browns defense for the tying touchdown, his 10-yard throw to Plaxico Burress.
"I look at it the same way as baseball -- sometimes if a pitcher has a bad performance, you bring in a relief pitcher," Cowher said. "To me, why can't football be the same? We know if we need a spark, we can go to Tommy."
Maddox was 11-of-13 for 122 yards with only one mistake, an interception on Pittsburgh's first play of overtime. But the Browns couldn't convert as Phil Dawson's 45-yard field goal try missed wide left.
"I thought we were going to win it there," quarterback Tim Couch said.
Maddox immediately led another long drive against Cleveland's injury-thinned defense, from the Steelers 35 to the Browns 6. With victory so close and Cowher unwilling to risk a fumble, the Steelers went for the possible game-winning field goal on second down.
Again, the Browns blocked a kick, with Alvin McKinley leaping over the middle to slam the 24-yard attempt right back to kicker Todd Peterson. But because the ball never crossed the line of scrimmage before Peterson fumbled in into John Fiala's hands, the Steelers retained possession.
Peterson converted his second chance into a game-winning 31-yarder that gave Cowher his 100th and, possibly, most unlikely career victory.
"Lady Luck bounced the ball to their guy and they got another chance at it," Holmes said. "I've never seen that happen before, not two chances at a field goal back-to-back like that."
In another twist, the no-huddle spread offense that so befuddled the Steelers in losses to New England and Oakland saved them. Maddox ran it effectively against a Browns defense missing injured cornerbacks Corey Fuller (hamstring) and Daylon McCutcheon (right eye).
Defensively, the Steelers made major changes, dropping as many as eight defenders in coverage to prevent Couch from making quick, high-percentage throws before their pass rushers could arrive.
"They had the bye week to prepare, so when they came out, they had everything squared away," Couch said.
Just in time, too; several Steelers said an 0-3 start might have been too much to overcome, even with 13 games to play.
"We took a couple on the chin, but we bounced back. Now, we've got to take this win and keep on going," linebacker Joey Porter said.
Notes: The blocked punt was the Browns' first in nearly three seasons. ... Cleveland has lost 26 of its last 31 in Pittsburgh. ... The Steelers never made the playoffs the previous 13 times they started 0-3. ... Couch's 144 yards passing were barely one-third as many as Rich Gannon's 403 yards against Pittsburgh on Sept. 15. ... Despite Maddox's play, Cowher all but said Stewart will start Sunday at New Orleans.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)