14 - 23 Final
  for this game

Steelers pick off Ravens, advance to Super Bowl

Jan 19, 2009 - 5:56 AM
By Brad Everett PA SportsTicker Contributing Writer

PITTSBURGH (Ticker) -- All the talk this past week surrounding the AFC championship matchup centered on two specific questions.

Could the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens for the third time this season? And which highly touted defense truly was the best?

Advantage, Steelers - on both counts.

Forcing four turnovers and limiting the Ravens to just 198 total yards, the Steelers earned the hat trick, knocking off the Ravens once again, 23-14, at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Pittsburgh's win sets up a Super Bowl matchup in two weeks against surprising Arizona (12-7), which upset Philadelphia, 32-25, in the NFC championship earlier in the day.

The Steelers (14-4) will be looking for their second Super Bowl win in four seasons and an NFL-record sixth overall against the Cardinals, who will be making their first appearance in the game.

"I don't think it's hit me yet, but it feels good to be back again," said James Harrison, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "Most people are lucky to get there once, and now, this will be our second time. I'm happy to be going back."

Allowing the Ravens to stay close with the help of several key penalties, the Steelers morphed a two-point, fourth-quarter lead into a nine-point win when safety Troy Polamalu intercepted rookie Joe Flacco's pass and returned it for a 40-yard touchdown to seal the Ravens' fate with just over four minutes left.

"It was man-to-man with Todd Heap and he was in the backfield," Polamalu said. "We anticipated him staying in the backfield to block LaMarr (Woodley) and James Harrison, so it allowed me to free up and just kind of react to the quarterback's eyes."

Baltimore got the ball back twice more, but the drives resulted in a fumble and interception.

The top-ranked Steelers defense was lethal throughout, particular in their harassment of Flacco, who finally played like a rookie after looking so cool in two previous postseason wins.

Flacco completed 13-of-31 passes for 141 yards, was intercepted three times and sacked three times.

"They did a good job," Flacco said of a Steelers defensive unit that came in allowing a paltry 237.2 yards per contest. "We were trying to take some shots, but they didn't give us anywhere to go with the ball. We just didn't get it done today."

Ben Roethlisberger completed 16-of-33 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown for the Steelers.

Roethlisberger played most of the game without favorite target Hines Ward, who left the game in the second quarter with a right knee injury. Ward said he expects to play in the Super Bowl.

"We're a team. There's no offense, there's no defense and there's no special teams. We're one," Roethlisberger said. "We want to fight for each other. We let nothing come between us."

Up 13-0 at one point, the Steelers let the Ravens hang around after committing two critical pass-interference penalties, the second of which - on Ike Taylor - gave the Ravens the ball at the Steelers 1.

That resulted in Willis McGahee's second short touchdown run to bring the Ravens within 16-14 with 9:29 left in the game.

But in what has been commonplace all season, the Steelers' defense made a play when it needed to, and got one yet again when Polamalu pulled in the errant Flacco pass and maneuvered his way to a touchdown that salted away the game.

"I was just running for my life, to tell you the truth," Polamalu joked.

Said Flacco: "We hard our play set on that side and we were trying to get to the sticks. I think that Troy was probably able to read my eyes. He does a great job doing that. You have to try to influence him as much as you can away from where you are going to throw the ball, and on that specific one he was just able to jump over there and make a good play."

The loss ended quite a season for the Ravens (13-6), their rookie quarterback and their rookie head coach, John Harbaugh, who helped engineer an impressive turnaround after the team finished 5-11 a season ago.

"I thought our guys, throughout the course of the season and throughout the course of this game, demonstrated who they are as men and what they are all about," Harbaugh said. "I couldn't be more proud of them and I couldn't be more proud to stand with them in victory and today in defeat."

Already ahead 6-0 after a pair of Jeff Reed field goals on two of their first three drives, the Steelers hit for the game's first big play when Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes for a 65-yard score just over a minute into the second quarterback.

Ravens defensive back Fabian Washington fell on the play, allowing Holmes to make the catch at midfield and use some fine downfield blocking by his teammates to reverse his field and dive into the left corner of the end zone.

"I got lazy and let the defender feel like the ball was going to be thrown out of bounds," Holmes said. "When I saw it short, I reacted to the ball quicker than he did, and I had a group of guys that were running with me."

The Ravens, who didn't secure their first first down until the second quarter was nearly three minutes old, struggled to find any offensive consistency in the first half but stayed alive as a result of a timely play by their special teams and another costly Pittsburgh penalty.

Jim Leonhard's 45-yard punt return put the Ravens in business at the Steelers' 17. After gaining just a yard on the ensuing two plays, a 3rd-and-9 pass play to Derrick Mason resulted in a defensive pass-interference penalty by Bryant McFadden that gave the Ravens a 1st-and- goal from the 3. On the next play, McGahee ran off left guard for a 3-yard run that pulled the Ravens within 13-7 with 2:40 left in the half.

"We took advantage of some opportunities and started to come back," said Ravens running back Ray Rice. "But as the game went on, we just couldn't do it enough."

McGahee ran 20 times for 60 times and two scores, but was carted off late in the game after a helmet-to-helmet hit that involved Steelers safety Ryan Clark. McGahee had movement in his arms and legs, but was suffering from extreme neck pain and was taken to Presbyterian Hospital for observation.

"He was talking and moving when they carried him off. That is always a good sign. Hopefully he can still take the ride home with us," said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who fought through a sprained right shoulder to register two of the team's four sacks.

Reed added a third-quarter field goal to put the Steelers ahead, 16-7.

The Steelers next turn their attention to an Arizona team that has many Pittsburgh connections, most notably Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, who was the Steelers offensive coordinator when they won the Super Bowl in 2006.

When Pittsburgh was searching for a replacement for the retired Bill Cowher one year later, Whisenhunt interviewed for the job, but the Steelers eventually selected Mike Tomlin. Cardinals assistant head coach Russ Grimm - then the Steelers offensive line coach - also had interviewed for the job.

"Like everyone else, I was a little disappointed that we couldn't get a Super Bowl matchup with any compelling story lines," Whisenhunt quipped. "But honestly, it's unbelievably special that we're going to the Super Bowl under any circumstances, but now to find out that we'll be playing the Steelers certainly takes it to another level."

The Steelers undoubtedly will be heavily favored to beat an Arizona team that was an underdog in their first three playoff games.

"I just told this group that we have miles to go until we sleep," Tomlin said. "We are excited about trying to meet this challenge and we will prepare like we always do because we have something to do that we intended to address."