AFC Championship: Steelers 23, Ravens 14
By Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH ó The Pittsburgh Steelers outhit the Baltimore Ravens and outplayed them behind a steady-as-he-goes Ben Roethlisberger, marching into the Super Bowl behind a defense that brought back memories of the storied Steel Curtain.
The Steelers ended their home-field jinx in the AFC title game by beating Baltimore 23-14 on Sunday and Troy Polamalu ended any chance the Ravens had for a comeback with a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown.
The Steelers will meet the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl in two weeks in Tampa.
The matchup is intriguing ó Mike Tomlin vs. the Cardinals’ Ken Whisenhunt, the offensive coordinator when the Steelers won the Super Bowl three seasons ago who went to Arizona after being passed over for Pittsburgh’s job.
Whisenhunt and his top assistant, Russ Grimm, left after the Steelers unexpectedly hired Tomlin, who has done something even Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher couldn’t do by taking Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl in his second season.
The Steelers harassed rookie Joe Flacco all game long. Normally unflappable, he looked lost at times and finished 13-for-30 for 141 yards and three costly interceptions.
Roethlisberger, picked off four times by New England in his rookie-year AFC title game, was a steady 16-of-33 for 255 yards and, most importantly, no interceptions. If nothing else, it showed how much experience mattered in a game so important.
After Polamalu’s twisting, turning run sealed it with 4:39 to play, the game was held up when Willis McGahee, who scored both Baltimore touchdowns, was carted off the field following a frightening hit to the helmet by Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark.
The Ravens said he had “significant neck pain,” but movement in his arms and legs.
Pittsburgh is heading to its seventh Super Bowl. Only the Steelers, 49ers and Cowboys have won five, and Pittsburgh can be the first to win six. If the Steelers beat Arizona, the 36-year-old Tomlin would be the youngest coach to win an NFL championship.
“They did it tonight the way we’ve done it all year,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got a very humble group, a very selfless group.”
The Steelers proved it is possible to beat a good team three times in a season, and will now face a team they share a history with. They were merged as Card-Pitt during World War II in 1944 when the Cardinals were in Chicago and went 0-10, the only winless team in Steelers history.
Steelers owner Dan Rooney recalls them being nicknamed the Car-Pitts “because everybody walked all over us.”
Earlier in the day, before Whisenhunt knew the outcome of the Steelers-Ravens game, he said he wanted to match up against Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.
“I mean, I’m glad we’re playing in it, but the reason I’m here is because of my time with Pittsburgh,” Whisenhunt said, “and I am very grateful for that.”
Nobody walks over these Steelers, a hard-hitting, tough-guy team with the NFL’s best defense, at least statistically, in nearly 20 years. The unit is a worthy descendant of the Steel Curtain teams of the 1970s that virtually defined the way defense is supposed to be played.
They spent the game pressuring Flacco, who tried to become the first rookie to take a team to the Super Bowl. He was outplayed as badly as Roethlisberger was by the Patriots’ Tom Brady in his first AFC title game four years ago, and the mismatch at QB may have made the difference.
Down 16-14, Flacco tried to rally the Ravens in the closing minutes. That’s when Polamalu stepped in.
“I think Troy was probably just able to read my eyes,” Flacco said. “I think he was just able to jump over there, read a little bit and he made a nice play.”
Said Roethlisberger: “He went against the No. 1 defense in the world.”
Ravens teammate Terrell Suggs said, “I don’t think he struggled. They just made plays. When you got a defense that can make plays like that, I don’t think he was placing the ball where he wanted to but this was just their night.”
Still, Roethlisberger cautioned, “You can’t make mistakes and win a big game.”
Maybe it helped that the two athletes largely responsible for Pittsburgh’s last two major sports championships ó former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and Penguins co-owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux ó were among the record crowd of 65,350 in Heinz Field.
The franchise, for all of the success it has enjoyed while playing in a record-tying 14 AFC title games, had lost an unprecedented four of its five most recent conference championship games in Pittsburgh. The run of losses almost made the Steelers glad to go on the road for the entire Super Bowl run-up to their last title.
The Ravens and Steelers own the NFL’s nastiest ongoing rivalry. This game was expected to be low-scoring, physical and tense and it was, especially after Baltimore came back from an early 13-0 deficit to get to within 16-14 on McGahee’s second short touchdown run of the game, a 1-yarder with 9:32 remaining.
Baltimore won the toss and chose to go on defense, but another such play ó Roethlisberger’s 45-yard completion to Hines Ward on third-and-12 play ó led to the first of Jeff Reed’s field goals, a 34-yarder.
On the Ravens’ second possession, Flacco made the kind of mistake he didn’t make in playoff wins over the Dolphins and top-seeded Titans, throwing the ball into the hands of nickel back Deshea Townsend for the rookie’s first interception in 98 passes. Ward kept the ensuing Steelers drive going with an 11-yard catch on third-and-10, leading to Reed’s 42-yard field goal, but hurt his knee while landing.
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