By Teresa Varley
A record crowd of 65,350 was on hand at Heinz Field to see something that has never happened there before – the Steelers winning the AFC Championship game with a 23-14 win over the Baltimore Ravens to advance to Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals.
The third time truly was a charm, with it being the third time this season the Steelers defeated the Ravens and the third AFC Championship game held at Heinz Field.
"We are happy to represent the AFC in Tampa, Florida in the Super Bowl," said head coach Mike Tomlin. "We respect this process. I just told this group that we have miles to go until we sleep. We are excited about trying to meet those challenges and we will prepare like we always do because we have something to do that we intended to address."
The Steelers defense was outstanding, stopping the Ravens on the ground and in the air and forcing turnovers. The offense was able to control the clock and keep the chains moving, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger having a strong performance despite losing his top receiver, Hines Ward, in the first half.
"It was a tough battle today, just like it always is when the Steelers play the Ravens," said Tomlin. "I tip my hat off to that group; their players, coaches and administrators. They bring the best out in us. It is a legitimate rivalry. We respect those guys. It is always like that. That is part of the reason that we are who we are; iron makes iron sharper; that is a tough group."
The Steelers opened the game with Parker going off right guard for three yards, but they quickly lost that when Willie Colon was called for a false start. On second-and-12 Roethlisberger couldn't connect with Nate Washington, but he went right back to the air, hitting Ward for a 45-yard gain to the Ravens 23-yard line. Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes for five-yards and Parker added a two-yard carry. On third-and-three Roethlisberger's pass to Heath Miller on the right sideline was incomplete. The Steelers were still able to get on the board first with Jeff Reed's 34-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco came out throwing on their first drive, but didn't have much success. He hit Willis McGahee for two yards, but threw incomplete to Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton for a quick three-and-out.
The Steelers also didn't have much success on their next drive. Parker had a two-yard gain, but was knocked for a one-yard loss on the next carry. On third-and-nine Roethlisberger was sacked by Haloti Ngata for an eight-yard loss.
A huge defensive play put the Steelers back in control. Flacco looked for Mason, but Deshea Townsend was right there, intercepting the pass at the Ravens 37-yard line.
Roethlisberger threw two incomplete passes before hitting Ward for an 11-yard gain, but Ward was shaken-up on the play. Roethlisberger went deep to Holmes at the one-yard line. The Steelers were set to challenge the call, thinking that Holmes was in the end zone. It was the Ravens that threw the flag though, challenging the completion. After review the pass was ruled incomplete, with Holmes not maintaining possession once he hit the ground. Roethlisberger was unable to find an open receiver and it was up to Reed again, hitting a 42-yard field goal for a 6-0 lead.
Flacco continued to feel the pressure from the defense, with Brett Keisel and LaMarr Woodley both getting to him and forcing errant passes. Once again, the Ravens were forced to go three-and-out, unable to establish anything on offense.
Parker had two short carries to give the Steelers a third-and-five at their own 15-yard line. Roethlisberger scrambled, but was able to find Miller for an 18-yard gain to the 33-yard line. But just when things were clicking Parker was hit by Ray Lewis, forcing a fumble which Ravens safety Jim Leonhard recovered.
It would be for no avail for the Ravens, though. McGahee had a seven-yard gain, and added a two-yard carry. On third-and-one McGahee was stopped by James Farrior and Woodley for no gain. Flacco tried for the quarterback sneak on fourth down, but was stopped by Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu, turning the ball over on downs.
In a game that a big play could be a difference-maker, Holmes came up big for the Steelers. He caught a short pass on the right side at the Ravens 49-yard line and broke loose, taking it across the field and scoring on a 65-yard reception to extend the lead to 13-0.
After both teams exchanged possessions it was another big play that made an impact. Leonhard fielded a 42-yard Mitch Berger punt and returned it 45 yards to the Steelers 17-yard line. A pass interference call on Bryant McFadden gave the Ravens a first down at the three-yard line. McGahee got the call and took it in to the end zone for a three-yard touchdown, cutting the lead to 13-7.
After two quick possessions by both teams the Steelers had a chance to get the seven points right back. Roethlisberger went deep for a wide-open Limas Sweed near the goal line, but he wasn't able to pull in the pass that was on his fingertips. Two incomplete passes forced the Steelers to punt, but they got a big break on the play. Edgar Jones was calling for roughing the kicker, giving the Steelers a first down at the Ravens 35-yard line. Roethlisberger hit Miller for 14 yards and Mewelde Moore for nine yards to the 12-yard line. The Steelers weren't able to get another play off, though, as time ran out in the half.
The Ravens got the ball to start the second half and Flacco got them going for a minute with a 16-yard completion to Mason. It wouldn't last long, though, as Flacco was knocked for an eight-yard loss on the next play by Polamalu. Ray Rice had a seven-yard reception to recover some of the yardage, but an incompletion to Mason on third down forced them to punt.
Roethlisberger went back to work, completing a 20-yard pass to Carey Davis for a key first down. He was sacked on the next play by Terrell Suggs for a 14-yard loss, but bounced right back with a 30-yard completion to Miller. Parker had a six-yard carry, and got a first down when he added a five-yard run. Roethlisberger went back to Sweed again at the goal line, but the pass was broken-up by Frank Walker. Reed added his third field goal of the game, extending the Steelers lead to 16-7.
An aggressive Steelers defense continued to rattle Flacco, with Woodley sacking him for a four-yard loss and not allowing the Ravens to get anything rolling.
Sweed was able to rebound and come up with a big 14-yard yard reception for a first down on the next series, but the offense wasn't able to move the chains again. Berger gave the Ravens great field position with a 21-yard punt and they were able to cash in on it. Clayton went around right end on the reverse for 16 yards to the Steelers 42-yard line. Flacco hit Mason for 14 yards and came right back to him for an 11-yard gain. Ike Taylor was called for pass interference on a deep pass to Marcus Smith, giving the Ravens the ball at the one-yard line. McGahee took it in from there for the one-yard touchdown, bringing them to within two at 16-14.
The Ravens momentum wouldn't last long, though. When they got the ball back, Polamalu came up with what could be the biggest play of the season, intercepting Flacco at the Ravens 40-yard line and taking it all the way back for a touchdown to give the Steelers an insurmountable 23-14 lead with just over four minutes to play in the game.
The defense continued to dominate when Ryan Clark leveled McGahee, forcing a fumble which Lawrence Timmons recovered. Both players were injured on the play, with Clark able to walk off but McGahee was taken off on a cart. McGahee did have feeling in his arms and legs, but had severe neck pain.
After the Steelers didn't move the ball, the Ravens had one last shot at it, but the defense shut the door on Baltimore and opened it up for a trip to Tampa.