49ers, Steelers In Cardiac Comebacks

San Francisco 49ers Tai Streets (89) makes the game winning touchdown in the fourth quarter as New York Giants' Dhani Jones (55) and William Peterson attempt to stop him during the NFC Wild Card playoff game in San Francisco, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2003. The 49ers beat the Giants 39-38. AP

Sunday's NFL playoff games produced two wild comebacks. In San Francisco, the 49ers came from 24 points down to edge the Giants, 39-38. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers erased a 17-point deficit to beat the Browns, 36-33.

49ers 39, Giants 38

In San Francisco, the 49ers, buried in a 24-point playoff hole after a season of missed opportunities, finally woke up.

After that, Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens could do nothing wrong - and the New York Giants made a monumental collapse, all the way down to their new long snapper.

Garcia hit Tai Streets with a 13-yard touchdown pass with 1 minute left, and the Giants botched the snap on a 41-yard field-goal attempt as time expired in San Francisco's 39-38 victory Sunday. It was the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.

Right down to a confusing, contentious ending, it was a game with more twists, turns and dramatic moments than most teams would see in years - from Amani Toomer's three touchdown catches to Kerry Collins' impressive performance, from Garcia's impossibly gutsy leadership to the fight that broke out at the height of the tension.

The 49ers (11-6) trailed 38-14 with 4 minutes left in the third quarter, but they scored 25 straight points on two TD passes and a scoring run by Garcia, as well as two 2-point conversion catches by Owens.

After Garcia drove the Niners 68 yards in just over 2 minutes for Streets' score, Collins got New York to the San Francisco 28 with 6 seconds left. But long snapper Trey Junkin, signed earlier in the week, made a low snap that Matt Allen couldn't handle.

Allen threw a desperate pass that fell incomplete, and after New York was penalized for illegal men downfield, the Niners leaped, sprinted and collapsed onto the field in a raucous celebration before an exhausted Candlestick crowd.

The 49ers advanced to face Tampa Bay next Sunday, but the Buccaneers will have no idea which San Francisco team they'll face - the one that stumbled through the first 40 minutes, or the one that flattened the Giants with an unbelievable rally.

Steelers 36, Browns 33

In Pittsburgh, the Comeback Player of the Year led the Pittsburgh Steelers' greatest playoff comeback ever.

Tommy Maddox threw three touchdown passes in the final 19 minutes and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala scored the winning touchdown with 54 seconds left as the Steelers, rallying from a 17-point deficit in the second half, stunned the Cleveland Browns 36-33 Sunday in an AFC wild-card game.

The Steelers, coming off so many playoff disappointments at home under coach Bill Cowher, this time came up with one of the great playoff comebacks in NFL history. They denied the Browns their first road playoff victory since 1969, their first playoff win of any kind since returning to the NFL in 1999 and gave themselves a huge momentum lift going into next weekend's divisional round game at AFC second-seeded Tennessee.

The Jets, shutout winners Saturday over the Colts, now play at top-seeded Oakland.

Not even the Steelers of the '70s ever pulled off a comeback like this, mostly because they rarely fell behind like this.

The Steelers were shredded all afternoon by inexperienced Browns quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns, and trailed 24-7 until Maddox's 6-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 3:50 left in the third quarter.

That's when the Browns' game-long inability to run the ball — rookie star William Green ran 25 times for just 30 yards — proved their undoing in a game they seemed to have locked up.

Unable to wind the clock down, they were forced to throw on almost every down, and, once the Steelers' defense finally tightened up, that left Pittsburgh the time to come back.

Even after Maddox's first scoring pass, the Browns moved the ball downfield for Phil Dawson's 24-yard field goal and Holcomb's 22-yard touchdown pass to Andre Davis that made it 33-21 with 10:17 remaining.

But the Steelers, who have lost four home playoff games under Cowher since 1992, including last year's AFC championship game to New England, didn't fold this time.

The Browns forced Pittsburgh to punt once, but Maddox — making his first playoff appearance since a few insignificant downs with Denver in 1992 — drove them 77 yards to throw a 5-yard scoring pass to Hines Ward with 3:06 left, cutting the deficit to 33-28.

Still, the Browns — who had already convinced thousands of Steelers fans to head for the exits — needed only a first down or two to run it out and secure one of the sweetest victories in the franchise's history, new or old.

But Dennis Northcutt, who had made big play after big play with two scoring catches and a long punt return, couldn't hold onto a Holcomb throw on third-and-12 and the Browns punted.

Maddox, going 30-of-48 for 367 yards and overcoming two interceptions, then found Plaxico Burress for 24 yards, Hines Ward for 10, Burress again for 17 and Ward for 7. Fuamatu-Ma'afala, playing the power back role that Jerome Bettis usually plays when he's not hurting with a sore knee, then powered up the middle from the 3 with 54 seconds left, and the Steelers' sideline erupted.

For the Browns, it was an eerie flashback to John Elway's memorable 98-yard "The Drive" to beat the Browns for Denver in a 1987 playoff game.

The game ended with Holcomb's 16-yard completion to Andre King at the Steelers' 29 as the Browns couldn't get into range for a possible tying field goal.

Until Maddox took over, it was all Holcomb all the time in a remarkable performance by a quarterback starting only his fourth NFL game as Cleveland tried to win a road playoff game for the first time since 1969. Now, that winless streak has reached eight.

Holcomb, subbing for the injured Tim Couch, had no running game for support, not a single minute of playoff experience — and no fear. Only Bernie Kosar, who threw for 489 yards in a 1987 playoff game against Jets, has thrown for more yards in a Browns playoff game.

Holcomb, one of the most inexperienced quarterbacks to start an NFL playoff game, threaded completions of 83, 32, 29, 15 and 43 yards against the NFL's seventh-ranked defense, but one weakened by injuries to cornerback Chad Scott and safety Mike Logan.

Holcomb set the tone on the third offensive play of the game, a third-and-14 from the Browns' 16, to find Kevin Johnson behind safety Brent Alexander for an 83-yard completion to the 1.

Green, coming off a 187-yard game against Atlanta, scored on the next play, one of his few positive-yardage runs of the day, and just like that, it was 7-0 Browns with only 1:16 gone.

Pittsburgh, troubled by turnovers all season, then turned it over three times in a span of 5½ minutes, twice on Maddox-thrown interceptions by Daylon McCutcheon, but only rookie Antwaan Randle El's fumbled punt was turned into points.

Randle El, unwisely electing not to make a fair catch with Darnell Sanders bearing down on him, fumbled into Chris Akins' hands at his own 32. On the next play, Northcutt got behind Hank Poteat for a 32-yard scoring catch that made it 14-0.

With the Steelers desperately seeking something to get them back into the game, Randle El supplied it with a 66-yard punt return touchdown. But Cleveland answered with Dawson's 31-yard field goal off a soggy turf that was softened by a pregame snow shower.
  • Dan Collins

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