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Pittsburgh 28, Cleveland 7
Posted: Sunday January 06, 2002 06:50 PM
Cleveland Browns
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Pittsburgh Steelers
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PITTSBURGH (Ticker) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers completed their best regular season in Bill Cowher's 10 years as coach in style. Now they hope it leads to playoff success.

In a driving snowstorm, the Steelers capped their first year at Heinz Field with a 28-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns in the 99th meeting between the long-time AFC Central Division rivals.

"It's important to win going into the playoffs, but it's nice to have a week off and get our bodies together," Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart said.

Having already clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Steelers rebounded from last week's loss to Cincinnati to finish 13-3, their best mark since going 14-2 in 1978 under Chuck Knoll.

"The pressure was getting here," Cowher said. "There's no pressure on us now. We're playing at home and we're not going to deviate. We're a very focused team."

Wide receiver Troy Edwards came up with the key play, returning Benjamin Gay's fumble 32 yards for a touchdown on the second-half kickoff to snap a 7-7 tie.

Tommy Maddox, who took over for Stewart in the second half, put away the contest with a 40-yard TD pass to Bobby Shaw with seven seconds left in the third period. Pittsburgh made it 28-7 on rookie R.J. Bowers' 21-yard TD run with 7:31 left in the game.

Maddox completed 6-of-8 for 97 yards before giving way to Tee Martin for the final series.

The Browns, who lost to the Steelers in overtime in Cleveland, completed their first season under Butch Davis with a 7-9 record. Cleveland lost five of its final six games following a 6-4 start.

"Next year, is going to be a big year for us," Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch said. "We worked so hard to get respect around the league. We just have to realize as hard as we worked, we have to work as hard to make that next step. The next thing is to make sure you win the games you should and those that get you to the playoffs."

Pittsburgh running back Jerome Betttis missed his fifth straight game with hip and groin injuries. The "Bus" was ready to return Sunday but because of the conditions, Cowher elected to keep him on the bench. With a bye next week, Bettis will have an extra week to recover.

"We moved the ball reasonably well, then Kordell started to make plays," Davis said. "We had seven, eight chances to sack him and his ability gave them big gains."

Despite being without Bettis, the Steelers took advantage of the conditions to wear down the Browns with a power running game. Pittsburgh outrushed Cleveland, 221-68, and had a 376-173 edge in total offense. The Steelers averaged 6.1 yards per rushing attempt.

"The offensive line has been the backbone of our football team and I would say our defensive line has been as well," Cowher said. "You can say what you want about the other people, but the two lines have been the foundation of this football team."

Bettis' replacement, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, rushed for 98 yards on 17 carries before leaving with a groin injury late in the third quarter. He did not return.

"Everyone of those guys up front deserves the credit," Fuamatu-Ma'afala said. "The offensive line has been a force for this team. They have all stepped up this season. We have only one guy going to the Pro Bowl game, but we should have three, four, five. Those guys have played great."

Bowers, a native of Western Pennsylvania and former minor league baseball player, rushed for 80 yards on six carries. Signed to the Steelers' practice squad three weeks ago, he set an all-time Division III rushing record at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

Stewart completed 8-of-16 passes for 72 yards and two interceptions, both on deflections. The NFL's leading rusher among quarterbacks, he also ran for 32 yards on four carries to go over the 500-yard mark.

The first interception of Stewart by cornerback Raymond Jackson gave the Browns possession at the Steelers 27. Rookie receiver Quincy Morgan's 24-yard run on a reverse set up Jamel White's three-yard TD run that gave Cleveland a 7-0 lead with 3:29 left in the first period.

The Browns recorded three interceptions to set a franchise-record with 33, breaking the previous mark of 32 set in 1968.

But the Steelers answered with an eight-play, 73-yard drive, tying the contest on Fuamatu-Ma'afala's 17-yard TD scamper 1:22 into the second period.

Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress went over the 1,000-mark in receiving yards on consecutive catches in the third quarter. It marks the first time the Steelers have had two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.

"We went into the game and we knew what numbers we needed," Ward said. "We knew what it was all about. Plax told me I needed 40 yards. When Tommy came into the game, I informed him how many yards we needed."

"It's (1,000 yards) a goal for every receiver every year," Burress added. "A starter wants to get yards. Once you establish yourself as a 1,000-yard receiver teams show you respect. But I'd give a 1,000-yard season away for a ring. We just have to get to our destiny."

Hall-of-Famer Lynn Swann and John Stallworth never accomplished the feat when they played for the Steelers in the late 1970s 1980s.

"Those things are great as long as they are done in the context of winning football games," Cowher said. "They earned it and it's a reward for them, but what I like about this team is they always put team before I."

After Shaw's touchdown, the Browns had a chance to get back in the game, but cornerback Deshea Townsend intercepted Couch on 4th-and-1 from the Steelers 16 with 11:31 remaining. Couch, whose contract was extended through the 2005 season earlier this week, completed 13-of-26 passes for 150 yards.

The Steelers drove 88 yards on seven plays, taking a 28-7 lead on Bowers' TD run, his first in the NFL.

White led the Browns on the ground with just 30 yards on 11 carries. Kevin Johnson caught six passes for 80 yards for Cleveland.