If they accomplish nothing else in their expansion season, the Cleveland Browns have mastered the art of the improbable comeback.
Tim Couch, sacked repeatedly and unable to lead Cleveland past midfield most of the game, threw two touchdown passes and Phil Dawson hit a 39-yard field goal as time expired as the Browns stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers 16-15 Sunday.
The loss, the fifth in their last six home games, could prove catastrophic to the Steelers' playoff hopes. And their eardrums.
"If we don't get better, there's not going to be any playoffs for the Pittsburgh Steelers," safety Lee Flowers said. "We've been up and down, up and down all year. Nobody's pointing fingers, but it's time for us to start playing."
Flowers said coach Bill Cowher didn't blow up but, "You know how he is. I'm sure we'll hear it tomorrow. You can't come in here Monday not expecting to get yelled at."
The Steelers (5-4), who had won three straight, dismissed suggestions they took Cleveland lightly. But Flowers bragged beforehand how they could easily pad their defensive statistics.
They did, sacking Couch six times while building a 15-7 lead with 10:10 left on Kris Brown's third field goal. But the Browns (2-9), who hadn't crossed midfield since driving 80 yards for a touchdown on their opening possession, got a huge break when John Thierry intercepted Kordell Stewart's screen pass and returned it 8 yards to the 15.
"That play's been very effective for us, but they were looking for it and they fell right into it," Steelers tackle Wayne Gandy said.
Karim Abdul-Jabbar ran to the 5, where Couch hit fullback Marc Edwards on a swing pass two plays later to cut it to 15-13 with 5:12 remaining. The Steelers kept the lead when Travis Davis and Earl Holmes stacked up Abdul-Jabbar inches short of the goal line on the 2-point attempt.
A key penalty helped the Browns during the decisive drive, which came two weeks after Couch's 56-yard TD pass on the last play upset the New Orleans Saints for Cleveland's first win since returning to the NFL.
"The game in New Orleans was a tough way for them to lose," Couch said. "But we earned this one."
Couch's teammates said he was remarkably composed before the final drive.
"I could see that gleam in his eye," Abdul-Jabbar said. "He kept talking to the guys and telling them we were going to pull it out. He has a lot of poise for a young quarterback."
Three plays later, with the Browns scrambling to get lined up with no time outs, Dawson directed a kick into a stiff wind just inside the left upright for the Browns' first victory in eight games against Pittsburgh since 1993.
"The wind was really blowing. I thought if it was inside the 25, it would be realistic," Dawson said. "The wind was coming out of the tunnel. The only thing you can do is aim down the middle and hit it as hard as you can."
He did, and the aftershock might be felt in Pittsburgh for weeks. As they left the field, the Steelers 1-3 at home this season were showered with boos.
"The fans have a right to be upset," linebacker Earl Holmes said.
Only a week before, the Browns were embarrassed 41-9 by the Baltimore Ravens, who abandoneCleveland after the 1995 season and left the city without an NFL team for three years.
Sunday's turnaround was reminiscent of 1989, when the Browns beat the Steelers 51-0 in Pittsburgh in the opener, only to lose to the Steelers 17-7 in Cleveland.
Until the dramatic finish, the Steelers dominated defensively, holding the Browns to two first downs after Couch led a five-play opening drive finished off by his 35-yard scoring pass to Kevin Johnson with 2:35 gone.
Couch's fumble inside the Browns 10 led to Pittsburgh's only touchdown, Richard Huntley's 5-yard run in the third quarter. The 2-point attempt failed as Stewart was tackled on a keeper.
Stewart never did find a groove, going 15-of-32 for 137 yards his fourth straight game under 150 yards. Jerome Bettis carried 26 times for 99 yards.
"This one really hurts," Stewart said. "This one will be real hard to digest."
©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed