Something Old, Something New

AFC: Steelers Put End to Ravens' Bid

Ravens QB Joe Flacco has a pass intercepted by Troy Polamalu, who races 40 yards to give Pittsburgh a 23-14 win and its second trip to the Super Bowl in four seasons.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009; Page D01

PITTSURGH, Jan. 18 -- Slowly they began the walk out of Heinz Field, away from a season nobody could have expected. Their 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game complete, the Baltimore Ravens had to shuffle through a tunnel and down a long concrete corridor beneath the end zone stands.

They did not talk, they did not weep. Their emotions were already spent on the grass outside, in the desperate drives that fell short, in the worry for running back Willis McGahee, who was carried away on a cart with a neck injury near game's end.

After that, they had nothing left.

So they walked silently out of the frigid winter night without a Super Bowl, the only sound the click-click-click of their cleats against the thin gray carpet that marked the path between the field and their locker room far down the concrete corridor.

Linebacker Ray Lewis was among the first. The others soon followed, a beaten army in white uniforms vanquished for the third time this year by their bitter rivals a state away.

"It was disappointing, you know?" Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said of the walk. "You got to listen to them celebrate and shooting off fireworks. You play things through your mind [before the game], and you don't imagine this."

In a way, it was probably too much of a dream for the Ravens to get to the Super Bowl they dared to dream about this week. Despite having a suffocating defense that destroyed opponents at the end of the regular season and at the beginning of the playoffs, there were too many injuries to too many important players. And their offense wouldn't be strong enough to withstand the relentless pressure of the Pittsburgh defense.

No one felt it as much as Joe Flacco, the rookie quarterback who had taken the Ravens further than the team ever expected. The Steelers linebackers and safeties kept coming on blitzes, pouring through a line that could not hold back the surge, and Flacco had nowhere to go, no one to throw to.

And too many of his 30 passes -- three -- were intercepted. The most critical being a late fourth-quarter throw picked from the air by Pittsburgh's star safety, Troy Polamalu, who ran 40 yards untouched for the touchdown that broke the Ravens and ensured the Steelers would be going to their second Super Bowl in four seasons.

"Just don't turn the ball over," Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after the game, offering a small smile at the simplicity of his statement. "In the playoffs that's the big thing. Just don't turn the ball over."

Roethlisberger did not, in winning yet another postseason game in a career of victories such as these. It also didn't hurt that Roethlisberger -- down to one serviceable wide receiver after Hines Ward went down with a knee injury -- managed to throw for 255 yards and a touchdown.

"They made the plays," Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Other teams we played would not make those plays."

And just as in the Steelers' other two games against the Ravens this year, those plays would be enough.

The thing that must have seemed so daunting to the Ravens was that this was a game they really could have won, and the trip to the Super Bowl could have been theirs. For while Pittsburgh dominated play in the early part of the game, the Steelers could not pull away.

Even after the Steelers took a 13-0 lead in the second quarter, the Ravens kept chipping back and made it 13-7 when McGahee plunged into the end zone with 2 minutes 40 seconds to play in the second period.

Pittsburgh also squandered two great chances to take a commanding lead right before halftime. Wide receiver Limas Sweed dropped a certain touchdown pass from Roethlisberger, and the Steelers were unable to stop the clock to get a field goal as halftime raced toward them.

Then in the third quarter, the Steelers were unable to produce a touchdown on a long drive, which culminated in a field goal and allowed the Ravens to linger in the game.

Given this chance, the Ravens' offense finally came to life in the fourth quarter. It moved freely downfield on a mid-quarter march that ended with McGahee's second touchdown, cutting the lead to 16-14 and filling the Baltimore players with hope that they might indeed make their second Super Bowl this decade.

But safety Daren Stone was penalized for blocking a player out of bounds, and instead of getting the ball on the 40-yard line with 6:50 left and a chance to move 35 yards for an attempt at a field goal that could win the game, they were pushed back to their 14. The Steelers faithful in the crowd of 65,350 roared and waved their golden Terrible Towels until the air was a sea of swirling gold. The force of so many jumping and bobbing actually caused the press box to shake.

Flacco then heaved a frantic pass toward Derrick Mason. Watching Flacco all the way, Polamalu jumped in front of Mason, snatched the ball out of the air and the dream for Baltimore was over.

Soon the Ravens would shuffle off the field and into an unknown of an offseason in which the great, stifling defense might be torn apart. Their coach, John Harbaugh, faced them in the locker room, and instead of talking about the defeat he told them to think of how far they had come.

In the empty room, the thought seemed so empty.

"It's hard to come up with words to explain today," Johnson said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company