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Steelers Interception, fourth-quarter comeback send Steelers into playoffs with momentum

Monday, December 30, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

In the end, the Steelers did not earn a first-round playoff bye anyway, so yesterday's come-from-ahead, come-from-behind 34-31 victory against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field meant ...

What?

Jason Gildon forces a fumble as he sacks Ravens quarterback Jeff Blake late in the second quarter yesterday. The turnover led to a Steelers' field goal. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

"It means a lot, just for morale and mentally," said cornerback Dewayne Washington, who had a morale boost of his own when he intercepted a Jeff Blake pass in the end zone with 14 seconds left to secure the victory. "It's just like Coach Cowher says, how do you want to look at the cup? Half empty or half full?"

The Steelers have not sipped from any kind of cup in 23 years, and they embark on their eighth trip into the playoffs in 11 seasons under Bill Cowher seeded third with a 10-5-1 record as the AFC North Division champion.

Even if they had lost yesterday they would have been seeded third because of what transpired elsewhere in the NFL. That means they play at 1 p.m Sunday at Heinz Field against Cleveland, their longtime, bitter rivals who have lost to the Steelers twice this season, once in overtime.

If the Steelers win that, they will play at second-seeded Tennessee the following weekend.

Last season, they were the No. 1 seed and lost at home to New England in the AFC championship.

"We have gone in so many different ways but have always come out with a loss," Cowher said. "That's a negative."

 
 
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Post-game audio, including comments from coach Bill Cowher, starting quarterback Tommy Maddox, and running back Amos Zereoue.

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Because Tennessee beat Houston yesterday, the Steelers could not earn a bye, and they still would have played at home next week if they had lost to Baltimore. In essence, their victory meant nothing, but losing to the Ravens was no way to go into the playoffs and they knew it.

"It was big, just showing our character, fighting back and coming back with a victory," linebacker Joey Porter said. "No matter how sloppy it looked, we're still going into the playoffs with a four-game winning streak."

It's only a three-game streak, but Porter made his point.

The Steelers pulled the game out with two fourth-quarter touchdowns to erase an 11-point lead by Baltimore, which ended its season at 7-9.

The Ravens took the lead on three consecutive scores -- Matt Stover's 43-yard field goal and touchdown passes by Blake to Todd Heap for 31 yards and Travis Taylor of 20 yards.

The Steelers responded with a 67-yard drive highlighted by quarterback Tommy-not-be-nimble Maddox, suprising even his teammates with a 21-yard scramble up the middle on third-and 10 to the Ravens' 20.

"It was a scary sight to see him run, but when he scrambled he got a big first down for us," Porter said. "We had all types of crazy stuff happen in the game and, how we've been playing this year, finally we get some kind of luck happen our way. We'll take it heading into the playoffs."

Zereoue, who started for injured Jerome Bettis and ran for 104 yards, ran the next three plays, the final for a 5-yard touchdown with 7:51 left. The Steelers missed the two-point conversion try to keep them down, 31-26. Next came a little more of that luck Porter mentioned.

Jeff Reed's kickoff was high and short, but Taylor could not catch it at the 23, the ball bouncing off his hands and his chest. Steelers linebacker Larry Foote pounced on it and held on through a wicked scrum.

"I saw it was loose on the ground," Foote said. "I dove on it. They were poking my eyes, grabbing my nose. They were trying to get it."

Foote hung on and the Steelers had a first down at Baltimore's 31. They moved to a first down at the 2, but Zereoue lost 3 yards and Maddox was sacked for another 3. On third-and-8, Maddox dropped back into the pocket and looked for an open receiver. Linebacker Peter Boulware, on the ground, grabbed him around the ankles, but Maddox hung in there and finally threw a pass that rookie Antwaan Randle El caught for a touchdown.

Maddox hit Plaxico Burress for the two-point conversion to put the Steelers ahead by three with 2:29 to go.

"Those last two drives we had," Burress said. "I think if we ply like that every series of the playoffs, they sky's the limit for us offensively. That was pretty impressive what we did those last two drives."

It almost was not enough.

The Steelers defense that played so well the past three games did not play so well yesterday.

"Defensively, we weren't sharp at all," Cowher said. "We gave up some big runs in the first half and then some big throws."

Blake completed 19 of 26 passes for 336 yards. He faced a third-and-11 at his 19 with less than two minutes left when he found Heap on the right sidelines. Heap, who caught seven passes for 146 yards, leaped over cornerback Hank Poteat and ran 33 yards to the Steelers 48.

The Ravens worked the ball down to a first down at the 10 after a Porter roughing-the-passer penalty. That's a chip-shot for reliable kicker Matt Stover. But the Ravens, who had nothing to lose, tried for the win first. There were 21 seconds left when Blake took the snap and threw a pass into the left side of the end zone for rookie receiver Randy Hymes. Washington and safety Lee Flowers leaped for the ball, and Washington came down with it to preserve the victory.

It was retribution for Washington, who gave up several big passes, including Heap's 31-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.

"Nobody says defensive backs or cornerbacks especially are going to be perfect," Washington said. "I go out and try to make every play I can and fall short sometimes."

Just as they had in beating Baltimore in October, the Steelers were outgained, this time 422-351 even though the Steelers ran off 71 plays to just 52 for the Ravens.

They also lost an early lead and blew chances to increase it. Maddox -- 20 of 30 for 194 yards, 2 interceptions and 4 sacks -- threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead. It took Baltimore three plays to tie it, one of them a 43-yard reception by Hymes over Washington. Jamal Lewis then fumbled at the 6, but Ravens fullback Alan Ricard recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.

The Steelers took a 10-7 lead on Reed's 23-yard field goal and extended it to 17-7 on Zereoue's 1-yard run, but that did not stand up long, either. Taylor returned a kickoff 54 yards, and three plays later Ricard had his second touchdown on a six-yard run.

Reed kicked a 48-yard field goal before the half for a six-point lead before the Ravens scored three times in the second half to go in front by 11.

The Steelers then mounted their biggest comeback of the season, sending them into the playoffs at least on more positive karma than had they lost.

"You can take it how you want to," Porter said. "We didn't play as good as we wanted to on defense, but when we came down to it, we still came away with a victory, and we're going to ride with that emotion into next week's game."


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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