Cleveland Browns QB Kelly Holcomb was on fire. He was unconscious, 26 of 43 and 429 yards. The Pittsburgh Steelers, already down starting CB Chad Scott, forced Holcomb to beat them through the air and so he did, amassing 202 yards on 5 of those 26 completions. Holcomb made every throw and looked destined to be a Cleveland hero.
The Browns came out, much like in game 2 of this North series, and punched the Steelers right in the mouth. Holcomb picked on Hank Poteat early and often while the Browns defensive line pushed around rookie guard Kendall Simmons. If not for the warrior-like play of LB Kendrell Bell, hobbled all season by a high ankle sprain, the Steelers would have been in much bigger hole at halftime than 17-7.
The Steelers turned the ball over three times in the first half, including a muffed punt return by Antwaan Randle El. Randle El balanced the ledger with a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown, but Pittsburgh's offense couldn't quite find the end zone itself while Holcomb had no problem playing long ball for 6.
How many times could Holcomb go to the well? Much like Cleveland's game against Kansas City, except this time Dwayne Rudd kept his helmet on, the Browns inability to run the ball would be their undoing. Browns RB William Green went nowhere all day against a stout Steelers defense, though the way Holcomb was throwing the ball, it didn't seem to matter.
Holcomb's touchdown party was finally interrupted by Mike Logan in the third quarter. Logan would injure his knee on the play, but the Steelers finally got a break. Tommy Maddox, 30 for 48 and 367 yards, cashed in the turnover leading the Steelers on a 10 play, 71-yard touchdown drive that pulled the Steelers back within 10.
The Browns would answer the Steelers, once with a field goal and another time with a touchdown, and any dramatic comeback seemed unlikely. The Steelers were down 27-14 and 33-21 during the 4th quarter. But a Maddox TD pass to Hines Ward brought the Steelers within 5.
The Steelers needed a big stop from their defense if they had any hope of winning this game. The Browns could hardly turn to the running game to drain the game clock and they would have to continue to hit big passing plays to keep Maddox off of the field. After a small Green gainer, an incomplete pass and a 5-yard penalty, the Browns were backed up with 3rd and 12. Holcomb lofted a pass to the left side towards an open Dennis Northcutt.
"I just dropped it, plain and simple."
And the Browns had to punt the ball away, the Steelers still holding two timeouts and the two-minute warning still yet to come.
Maddox then turned to Ward and Plaxico Burress. This dynamic duo would finish with 17 catches for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Steelers marched down the field and stood poised on the Browns three-yard line. The Steelers then did what the Browns could not, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala ran the ball into the end zone.
A crowd that had been loud all day, often forcing Holcomb into delay of game penalties, was bedlam. The Browns were stunned. And the Steelers, at least what was left of them, set up for the 2-point try.
Randle El found TE Jerame Tuman in the back of the end zone and the Steelers enjoyed a 3-point lead with less than a minute left.
The Browns were out of timeouts and certainly out of magic. There just wasn't enough clock and their fans would be left with the vision of Northcutt's dropped ball.
"This is going to hurt. This burns inside,'' said Northcutt. "It's going to be very hard to move on.''
The Steelers are moving on, to Nashville to face the Titans next Saturday. The Steelers are banged up. Logan and Kimo Von Oelhoffen likely won't play. Bell might be back, but hobbled off the field towards the end, his ankle finally spent and the pain too much. Hopefully, Scott will be able to return. The much maligned CB is much more valuable than many Steelers fans thought, including this one.