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On This Date in Sports January 5, 2003: Wild Card Comebacks

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

It’s a day of comebacks in the NFL Playoffs. In the early game, the Pittsburgh Steelers overcome a 24-7 deficit in the third quarter to beat the Cleveland Browns 36-33 at Heinz Field, while the San Francisco 49ers overcome a 38-14 deficit in the third quarter before rallying to beat the New York Giants 39-38 at 3Com Park. The Steelers won the game with two touchdowns in the last three minutes, while the Giants botched a potential game-winning field goal.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, coached by Bill Cowher, got off to a slow start in 2002, losing three of their first four games with Kordell Stewart at quarterback. Looking for a jumpstart, Pittsburgh turned to former XFL quarterback Tommy Maddox. With Maddox under center, the Steelers turned things around, winning the AFC North with a record of 10-5-1. With the turnaround, Maddox would be named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year, passing for 2,836 yards with 20 touchdowns.

The Cleveland Browns, coached by Butch Davis, meanwhile, in their fourth season since returning as an expansion team, showed their first signs of life, posting a record of 9-7 to slip into the playoffs as the sixth seed. The Browns, who won five of their last seven games, also made a quarterback change as Kelly Holcomb took over for Tim Couch late in the season.

Kelly Holcomb helped the Browns get off to a strong start, as William Green scored the game’s first touchdown on a one-yard run. Later Holcomb connected with Dennis Northcutt on a 32-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-0 in the second quarter. The Steelers would get a 66-yard punt return by Antwaan Randle-El cut the lead in half, but Phil Dawson made it 17-7 at the half with a 31-yard field goal. The Browns added to the lead as Northcutt had a second touchdown catch to start the third quarter. The Steelers answered Plaxico Burress caught a touchdown pass from Tommy Maddox, but Dawson’s field goal at the start of the fourth quarter kept the Steelers down, extending the lead to 27-14. Maddox connected with Jerame Tuman to get Pittsburgh within one score, but the Browns continued to control the game as Holcomb had his third touchdown of the game with a 22-yard pass to Andre’ Davis. However, a two-point attempt failed, as the Browns' lead was 33-21. 

With time running out, Tommy Maddox dove the Steelers 77 yards in two minutes and hit Hines Ward on a five-yard pass with 3:11 left. The Browns would go three and out without taking much time off the clock. The Steelers got the ball back and quickly went 61 yards, taking the lead on a three-yard run by Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala. On the two-point try, Randle-El successfully connected with Tuman to make the score 36-33. With 50 seconds left, the Browns tried to get down the field to tie the game but ran out of time as they had just worked the ball into Steelers' territory.

The San Francisco 49ers, coached by Steve Mariucci, had their ups and downs but won the NFC West with a record of 10-6. It was the same record held by the New York Giants coach by, Jim Fassel, who went into the playoffs winning six of their last eight games. The two teams had met in the season opener, which was the first of the NFL’s new tradition of starting the year with a special game on Thursday Night. The 49ers won that game at the Meadowlands 16-13.

Things got off to a great start for the Niners, as Jeff Garcia connected with Terrell Owens on a 76-yard touchdown pass on the team’s first play from scrimmage. The Giants tied the game near the end of the first quarter on as Amani Toomer caught a 12-yard pass from Kerry Collins. The Giants took their first lead early in the second quarter when Jeremy Shockey reeled in a pass from Collins. After Kevin Barlow evened the score with a one-yard plunge, the Giants, with two Toomer touchdown catches, went into halftime with a 28-14 lead. As the third quarter began, the Giants seemed in full control, with Tiki Barber scoring on a six-yard run while Matt Bryant made it 38-14 with a 21-yard field goal. 

The Niners finally answered with two minutes left in the third quarter, as T.O. caught a 26-yard pass from Garcia. The same two connected on a successful two-point try to make the score 38-22. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Jeff Garcia had a 14-yard run, again connected with Terrell Owens to make it 38-30, bringing life back into the crowd at San Francisco. The 49ers' comeback continued as Jeff Chandler hit a 25-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter. 

After Matt Bryant missed a 42-yard field goal, the 49ers took the lead for the first time since the first quarter as Garcia hit Tai Streets on a 13-yard touchdown pass with 1:05 left in the game. The Niners could not complete the two-point try, keeping the door open for New York at 39-38. With one minute left, the Giants quickly moved the ball to the San Francisco 23, setting up a potential game-winning field goal. However, long snapper Trey Junkin who was signed just for the playoffs had a low snap forcing holder Matt Allen to try a desperate pass, which landed incomplete, when guard Rich Seubert was yanked to the ground as the Niners won the game 39-38.

The Steelers and 49ers both would get eliminated in the Divisional Playoff round the following week, with the Steelers losing in overtime to the Tennessee Titans 34-31, while the 49ers were beaten by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-6. Despite their playoff heroics, the 49ers would allow coach Steve Mariucci to exit as he left to take over the Detroit Lions.

In the chaos of the final play of the Giants' game, the officials failed to realize Rich Seubert was eligible, and the Giants should have had another play on pass interference. The NFL would issue a letter of apology that made the stunning loss feel even worse for Giants fans.