Recently, I wrote a series about five specific plays that broke the hearts of Steeler Nation. One reader called the articles a “torture series.” Those words stuck with me. So, to prove I’m not a total black cloud over the Black and Gold fan base, I added a twist to a new series: Heart-stopping plays that did not prevent a happy ending for the Steelers and their fans.
No. 5: Seriously, thank you Stevie Johnson
No. 4: Dennis Northcutt drops the nail that would have closed coffin on Steelers
Backdrop: Jan. 5, 2003 at Heinz Field. The Wild Card game that truly embodied “wild.” The Steelers vs. the hated Cleveland Browns. It was a matchup that football fans live for…or die for, depending on how your team fares. This one was a roller coaster and a shootout. Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox and Browns gunslinger, Kelly Holcomb combined for 796 passing yards. The Browns jumped all over the Steelers early and went up 14-0. And with about 4 minutes left in the third quarter, the Browns had built a 24-7 lead. The outlook for the Black and Gold looked bleak.
Then Tommy “Gun” started to find his groove. He hit Plaxico Burress for a touchdown late in the third quarter. Then he hit tight end Jerame Tuman with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Browns answered with a TD of their own and then Maddox led a drive that ended with a Hines Ward score with 3:06 left in the fourth quarter and the Steelers down 33-28. The defense would need to hold.
After a few plays, including a tremendous pass break-up on a deep ball by Pittsburgh CB Dewayne Washington, the Browns found themselves in a third-and-12 at their own 21-yard line with 2:49 left in regulation. The Steelers had one timeout left. A first down here almost puts the game out of reach.
The play: Dennis Northcutt had already torched the Steelers on this day. He had six catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns, not to mention some huge kick returns. It made sense Holcomb would look for him. Northcutt was spread out wide left. Just before the snap, Steelers CB and hometown favorite Hank Poteat slipped. Northcutt took off on what looked like an inside route before cutting to his left and running a route towards the sidelines. As Northcutt broke to the outside, Poteat inadvertently got picked OLB Joey Porter, which gave Northcutt a few steps on Poteat.
Holcomb threw a beautiful touch pass that floated like a dream right into the hands of Northcutt for what would have been about a 25-yard gain and a dagger in the Steelers’ heart. Once again, screams of “NOOOOO!!” resounded across Western Pennsylvania as it seemed the Brownies had buried the Steelers’ hopes and dreams. However, the pass bounced off Northcutt’s hands and fell harmlessly to the turf, forcing the Browns to punt from their own 21.
Aftermath: Maddox drove the Steelers down to the 3-yard line before big Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala bulldozed his way into the end zone with 54 seconds remaining. Antwaan Randle El hit Jerame Tuman for the 2-point conversion, sealing the Steelers’ huge comeback and 36-33 victory. It was a game for the ages, one Pittsburgh simply could not lose.
The Steelers had finished the season 10-5-1 and were division champs. The Browns were 9-7 and playing their first playoff game since their reincarnation as a franchise in 1999. The Steelers had All-Pros and Pro Bowlers throughout their roster. The Browns were basically a burgeoning expansion team. Not to mention, the game was played in Pittsburgh where hatred for the Browns burns with the intensity of a thousand suns.
The Steelers may have lost the following week, but the Browns wouldn’t play in another playoff game for the next 18 years. Had Northcutt caught that ball and the Steelers lost, that game would have been a nightmare that haunted Steelers fans to this day. Dennis was a menace that day but couldn’t seal the deal when it mattered most.