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They came, more than 58,000 strong, waving their

By David CarducciRecord-Courier staff writer Published: November 15, 1999 12:00 AM

They came, more than 58,000 strong, waving their "Terrible Towels," prepared to watch another drubbing in what locals were calling "nothing more than a 60-minute scrimmage."

The fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't get what they expected.

They could only watch helplessly as the Browns pulled off the unthinkable.

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Rookie quarterback Tim Couch led his team in a last-minute drive that ended with a 39-yard field goal by Phil Dawson as time expired, lifting the Browns to a stunning 16-15 victory over the Steelers Sunday.

Just three days earlier, Browns coach Chris Palmer had commented that the Browns' 49-year rivalry with the Steelers was "in hibernation," and would remain in that state until the Browns proved they could be competitive.

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After Sunday's game, Palmer declared "the rivalry is back."

Throughout the season the young Browns have wilted in the face of second-half adversity. Sunday, after falling behind late in the game, the Browns refused to quit. Instead, they took on the personality of their fiery young quarterback.

"I could see that gleam in his eye," said running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar. "He kept talking to the guys and telling them we were going to pull it out. He has a lot of poise for a rookie quarterback."

Trailing 15-13 with 1:51 left, Couch led the Browns into position for the game-winning field goal, driving 58 yards without the benefit of a timeout.

On the drive's first play, Couch took advantage of an open middle of the field against the Steelers' Cover-Two defense, completing a 23-yard pass to Darrin Chiaverini. As Couch delivered the throw, he was blasted on a helmet-to-helmet hit by Pittsburgh linebacker Mike Vrabel. The additional 15 yards on the penalty for roughing the passer gave the Browns a first down at the Steelers' 37 with 1:43 left in the game.

"(Vrabel) blasted me pretty good and busted my mouth up," said Couch. "After that hit I was a little rattled. I got up and looked at the crowd, and everything was a little blurry. Luckily I had time to shake it off while they marked off the penalty."

Couch quickly regained his composure, dumping off a short pass to running back Terry Kirby for seven yards.

As the clock neared the one-minute mark, Abdul-Jabbar ran up the middle for runs of five and three yards, setting up a fire drill as Dawson and the field-goal unit raced on the field to attempt the game-winner.

Instead of stopping the clock by spiking the football, Palmer chose not to risk leaving time on the clock for the Steelers offense, and called for his special teams to run into position while the clock whittled down from 40 seconds to two seconds.

"Our coaches talked to me about (spiking the football) and I was very, very concerned that we would leave time on the clock," said Palmer. "I wanted to be in a situation that either we won the game or lost the game at that point. I overruled them on that situation."

Dawson said he was caught "completely by surprise" by the decision. "When I heard them yell field-goal team, I was over on the sidelines by the net kicking. I look up and (his team was on the field). I had to rush out there real quick. Usually on a normal field goal, I'm the first guy out there."

Even after Dawson and his team was in position, the kicker still wasn't comfortable. As his holder Chris Gardocki called out the signals, Dawson shouted "hold on, hold on." Gardocki waited until the last second before calling for the snap.

"When I finally kicked it, I looked up and saw the ball spinning right down the middle," said Dawson, whose kick was into the teeth of a strong wind. "I knew it was good. That's why I play. These are the moments I lay in bed and dream about."

Six minutes before Dawson's game-winning field goal, the Browns were given an opportunity to pull into a tie with the Steelers after defensive end John Thierry intercepted a pass by Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart deep in Steelers territory.

With 5:12 left in the game, Couch capitalized on the turnover, tossing a 5-yard touchdown pass to fullback Marc Edwards, who bulled into the right corner of the end zone to cut Pittsburgh's lead to 15-13.

The Browns quickly lined up for a two-point conversion, but failed to tie the score when Abdul-Jabbar was stuffed by Steelers linebacker Earl Holmes on a run up the middle.

Pittsburgh ran more than three minutes off the clock, picking up two first downs on six consecutive runs by Jerome Bettis. At the two-minute warning, the Browns finally forced the Steelers to punt when cornerback Ryan McNeil dropped Pittsburgh running back Richard Huntley for a one-yard loss as he attempted a sweep off the left tackle on third-and-four.

"Had they got the first down, the game would have been over," said Palmer.

The Browns took an early lead, featuring a no-huddle offense that drove 80 yards in just five plays, scoring on a 35-yard touchdown pass from Couch to rookie wide receiver Kevin Johnson on the game's opening possession.

"I give the Browns credit," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "They caught us off-guard (with the no-huddle offense) on that first possession. As opposed to being able to negate some of the big plays, before we could talk about it on the sideline we gave up the big plays. They executed well."

Cleveland led 7-3 at the half, but appeared poised for yet another second-half collapse after Pittsburgh scored nine quick points at the start of the third quarter.

Steelers kicker Kris Brown opened the second half with his second field goal of the game _ a 32-yarder with 9:57 left in the third.

Less than two minutes later, the Steelers took their first lead of the game, 12-7, on a 5-yard touchdown run by Huntley.

A 47-yard, fourth-quarter field goal by Brown pushed the lead to 15-7 with 10:10 remaining in the game.

The win was the Browns second of the season (2-8), with both victories coming in the game's final play.

Browns defensive back Corey Fuller said the victory rekindled the stalled rivalry between the Browns and Steelers by putting a dent in Pittsburgh's playoff hopes. The Steelers dropped to 5-4.

"It's back," he said. "It's definitely back. Nobody thought we could bounce back after we lost to Baltimore. How do you bounce back? You have to have heart. This team has heart and it has pride. Pittsburgh was looking by us. We showed that if you look by this football team, you are going to get beat. We also showed that Pittsburgh is a very average football team."

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