NFL playoffs: Steelers rally past Ravens to advance

The Steelers score last in a brutal playoff clash in Pittsburgh to advance to the 15th AFC title game in franchise history.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 12:14 AM

PITTSBURGH - When the Pittsburgh Steelers had to summon the improbable, who to entrust but Ben Roethlisberger? Throughout his career, the dogged quarterback has made consequential plays with regularity, and he did so again in Saturday's AFC semifinal against the Baltimore Ravens to lead a 31-24, come-from-behind victory before 64,879 at Heinz Field.

Facing third and 19 from his team's 38-yard line late in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger delivered another signature playoff moment with a throw to wide receiver Antonio Brown, who had beaten cornerback Lardarius Webb, to the Baltimore 4. Five plays later, running back Rashard Mendenhall scored from two yards out with 1 minute 33 seconds to play, and the Steelers could rejoice in their 15th appearance in the AFC title game, fifth since 2001 and second in three years.

The victory was particularly invigorating for the Steelers because it came against their arch nemesis. The Ravens had made it clear that nothing would provide more fulfillment to them than ousting the six-time Super Bowl champions on their home field. Baltimore also had the added incentive of having lost to Pittsburgh two straight times in the postseason entering Saturday's game.

"They always pride themselves on bullying guys," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said of the Ravens. "They always do the trash talking. They were trash talking all week, talking how they want to break Ben's nose again and stuff like that, but sometimes when you're fighting a bully you've got to just hit them in the mouth and shut them up."

Even when Roethlisberger had his nose bent out of shape against Baltimore on Dec. 5, he was able to regroup and shepherd a 13-10 win. His poise and uncanny ability to escape pressure were no different on this night, when he completed 19 of 32 throws for 226 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.

Roethlisberger completed passes to nine players, including five to tight end Heath Miller and four to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Mendenhall added just 46 yards rushing on 20 attempts, but he scored two touchdowns, none more gratifying than the one that followed Roethlisberger's dramatic throw.

"I guess guys sense the urgency," said Roethlisberger, whose playoff superlatives also include the winning touchdown to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIII to beat Arizona, 27-23. "We don't like to put ourselves in those situations. We like to just drive the ball down and whatever, but it comes down to our last play, and everyone digs a little deeper."

Pittsburgh's defense, meantime, limited Baltimore to 28 yards in the second half, including negative-four in the third quarter, when the Ravens imploded with three turnovers in four possessions. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had just 125 yards passing with one touchdown and one interception for a rating of 61.1.

After completing a comeback from two touchdowns down late in the third quarter, the Steelers took the lead, 24-21, on place kicker Shaun Suisham's 35-yard field goal with 12 minutes 15 seconds to go in the game. Pittsburgh was in position for that kick off the foot of the former Redskin following a fumble on a muffed center-quarterback exchange. Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel landed on the ball at the Ravens 23.

The Ravens came back with a 27-yard field goal from Billy Cundiff with 3:54 to play, made possible after Webb's long punt return gave Baltimore the ball at the Pittsburgh 29. But Webb soon would go from potential savior to conspicuous culprit after giving up the play that set up the decisive score.

The Steelers didn't waste much time carving into a sizable deficit early in the second half, getting a nine-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Miller with 9:11 left in the third quarter to cap a 23-yard drive. Pittsburgh's short drive started after safety Ryan Clark, also formerly of the Redskins, forced a fumble by tailback Ray Rice that linebacker LaMarr Woodley recovered at the 23.

Clark gave the Steelers another short field minutes later by intercepting Flacco's overthrown pass into double coverage, returning it 17 yards to the Ravens 25. Four plays later, Ward was on the receiving end of Roethlisberger's eight-yard touchdown pass, and the game was tied at 21.

It didn't take long for the hostilities between the teams to ignite. On the Steelers' initial possession of the game, Ward shoved safety Ed Reed to the ground and pushed him while Reed was on his back. That drew a personal foul on Ward, but Pittsburgh shrugged that off when Roethlisberger completed a 20-yard fade to Mike Wallace to the Steelers 38 on third and 12.

On the next play, Wallace drew a pass interference call against cornerback Josh Wilson that moved the ball 37 yards to the Ravens 25. Pittsburgh ran seven consecutive times from there, and Mendenhall's one-yard effort on the last of those carries made it 7-0 with 6:18 to play in the opening quarter.

But the Ravens responded with three consecutive touchdowns. The first was Rice's 14-yard touchdown, and 27 seconds later in a bizarre play, defensive end Cory Redding scooped up a Roethlisberger fumble for a 13-yard touchdown.

Linebacker Terrell Suggs had smacked Roethlisberger's arm moments earlier, and the ball came loose, but players from both teams simply stood around for a short time before Redding picked it up. Baltimore's next touchdown came on a four-yard pass from Flacco to tight end Todd Heap, and it appeared the Ravens were on their way to the next round.

"We just weren't great enough today to win that football game," Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. "That's certainly disappointing, but that doesn't discourage us, doesn't frustrate us. We'll be back."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company