Saturday, January 15, 2011
The airwaves buzzed with the ramblings of Jets Coach Rex Ryan and the retorts from New England, home of the Jets’ A.F.C. East nemesis and Sunday opponent. The Jets and the Patriots do not have to talk because their brand of football is so loud and concussive. But talk they did, to the point where they seemed like the only show in the N.F.L.
What talking occurred between the Steelers and the Ravens in the lead-up to their A.F.C. North rubber match was relatively tame. In the case of Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, it was nonverbal: he met members of the news media one day this week wearing a T-shirt featuring an image of a raven making a vulgar gesture.
In the end, Troy Polamalu, who speaks softly and delivers a big hit, provided the words that proved prophetic, saying the game between the teams that have combined for three Super Bowl titles since 1999 would be more like a chess match than a trench war. It was going to be a battle of field position and turnovers, he predicted, adding that it was “the truest essence of what football is about.”
Short fields and costly mistakes told the story of the Steelers’ 31-24 victory at Heinz Field. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, master of the Houdini drive, worked his magic again by marching the Steelers 65 yards in 11 plays for the winning score. Rashard Mendenhall ran the final yard for his second touchdown, with 1 minute 33 seconds left, as the Steelers earned a spot in the A.F.C. championship game against either the Jets or the Patriots.
Roethlisberger, who hasn’t lost to the Ravens since 2006, passed for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Ravens’ Joe Flacco was 16 of 30 for the Ravens, who finished their season at 13-5. Flacco threw for 125 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
The Ravens jumped out to a 21-7 lead in the first half, silencing the crowd of 64,879 by forcing two Pittsburgh turnovers they converted into 14 points.
The Steelers roared back in the second half by scoring 17 points off three Ravens turnovers to take a 24-21 lead. To the surprise of nobody, Baltimore came back to tie the score with 3:54 left in the fourth quarter on a 24-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff. The previous six games between the teams were decided by a total of 19 points.
For Roethlisberger, the game mirrored his season: it started on a low point and ended on a high one. He never looked more forlorn than late in the first quarter when, with the score tied at 7-7, Suggs knocked the ball from his grasp.
The football came to a rest at the Pittsburgh 13-yard line, where it sat for a few seconds before Ravens’ defensive end Cory Redding scooped it up and ambled into the end zone. The Steelers, who assumed the play was an incomplete pass, stood around, oblivious.
The score worked like a shot of anesthesia on the Steelers, who played the rest of the first half as if numbed. They turned the ball over again before the intermission, with Mendenhall fumbling at the Steelers’ 12. Mendenhall, who had given the Steelers the early lead with a one-yard run in the first quarter, lost the ball at the end of a four-yard gain.
After the recovery by the Ravens’ Ed Reed, Flacco led the Ravens on a six-play, 16-yard drive that culminated with a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap.
In the Ravens’ 30-7 victory at Kansas City in an A.F.C. wild-card playoff game, Heap finished with 10 catches, five of which came, as did his 4-yard reception, on third down.
It got worse for the Steelers, whose kicker, Shaun Suisham, missed a 43-yard field-goal attempt with 26 seconds left in the second quarter. Suisham had made 14 of 15 field goals since being signed in November.
Flacco, in his third season, was trying to become the winningest road playoff quarterback in N.F.L. history, with a 5-2 record. After a fine first half, he was 30 minutes from wiping his psychic slate clean against the Steelers, who have handed him some of his worst memories as a pro.
In their game on Dec. 5, Flacco lost a fumble after being sacked by Polamalu, a play that allowed the Steelers to score the winning points on the ensuing drive. Two years ago in the A.F.C. title game, Flacco was intercepted by Polamalu, who returned the interception for a touchdown that punched the Steelers’ ticket to the Super Bowl.
The third quarter will haunt Flacco for a long time. After Ray Rice lost a fumble following a 5-yard catch, Flacco threw a deep pass intended for Heap that was intercepted by Ryan Clark. The Steelers capitalized with a 14-yard scoring pass from Roethlisberger to Hines Ward.
The 34-year-old Ward, one of eight Steelers starters older than 30, was coming off, for him, a sub-par season, with 59 catches and 5 touchdowns. He vowed this week to be someone his teammates could count on to make the clutch play in the postseason.
True to his word, after not making a catch in the first half, Ward brought the Steelers even with the Ravens at 21-21. Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ defense took it from there.