BROWNS-STEELERS Unlikely quarterbacks take over
Instead of Tim Couch and Kordell Stewart, it's Kelly Holcomb and Tommy Maddox in the spotlight.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- It all started for Tommy Maddox with a must-win situation in a Browns-Steelers game. Kelly Holcomb can only hope it works out so well for him.
The Steelers were seen as a certainty to reach the playoffs when the season began -- with Kordell Stewart at quarterback, not Maddox.
The Browns had no idea until a few weeks ago they would get this far and, even then, never figured Holcomb would be their man.
Now, here they are, two quarterbacks with a combined 18 league starts between them set to oppose each other Sunday in the first NFL playoff game either has played.
Maddox probably saved the Steelers' season by coming off the bench to lead them to a 16-13 overtime victory over Cleveland on Sept. 29, preventing an 0-3 start from which they might not have recovered.
Holcomb, who watched from the opposing sideline that day as the backup to the now-injured Tim Couch, would like to mimic that performance now that he's Cleveland's starter the rest of the way.
He hopes it's not a one-week audition.
"I'm looking forward to this opportunity," said Holcomb, whose only NFL start before this season came with Indianapolis in 1997. "I've got to get back in the groove and try to win some ball games."
Note that he didn't say "ball game" -- seemingly, an optimistic outlook for a Browns team that hasn't won a road playoff game in 33 years.
Still, Holcomb was the fans' favorite as Couch's backup. He seemed to justify their confidence by going 27-of-39 for 326 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas City's leaky defense in the season opener. It took Dwayne Rudd's untimely helmet toss to turn him from the winning quarterback into the loser.
Holcomb also made some key throws after replacing the injured Couch in Cleveland's playoff-clinching 24-16 victory over Atlanta last weekend, including a go-ahead 15-yard scoring pass to Kevin Johnson in the fourth quarter.
"Their guys believe in him," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "He was able to move the team. It's not like you're getting a guy who hasn't played all year."
What if ...
The Browns' big worry now is if Holcomb goes down. His backup is Josh Booty, who hasn't thrown a pass this season.
Of course, Maddox hadn't, either, before replacing the ineffective Stewart with the Steelers trailing Cleveland 13-6. In his first meaningful NFL action since 1995, Maddox drove them 77 yards in seven plays for a 10-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. He then led a game-winning field goal drive in overtime.
Maddox went 7-3-1 in his 11 starts and won the AP Comeback Player of the Year award.
However, his play has dropped off slightly since that improbably good start. He has eight interceptions, only five touchdown passes and a scary injury since his team-record 473-yard passing day Nov. 10 against Atlanta.
There's also a perception around the league that he's become overly eager to get rid of the ball and started making poor reads since he was temporarily paralyzed by a hit Nov. 17 in Tennessee.
The Browns will try to pressure him as much as possible to try to force a game-altering turnover. In Maddox's last three starts at Heinz Field, six of his turnovers have been turned into touchdowns.
"It's taken me 10 years to get here, and I'm going to enjoy it and savor every minute of it," Maddox said. "Everybody wants to play in the playoffs ... and there are [20 starting] quarterbacks in the league who wish they could be here."
Against Cleveland on Nov. 3, Maddox rallied the Steelers to a 23-20 victory, throwing the ball effectively out of a spread offense after falling behind 14-3. He threw two touchdown passes in the second quarter to put the Steelers ahead to stay.
"They've played well against us in the two games, but we found a way to win those games," Maddox said. "I think that's going to be important this weekend -- to somehow, some way, find a way to win."