Ravens Pro Bowl LB Terrell Suggs, suffering from a sprained right shoulder, kept his ironman streak alive (playing in his 101st straight game). Suggs, wearing a harness, appeared a shell of his former self in the first half. But in the second half, he had two sacks, including one to force a punt with the Ravens down 16-14 and seven minutes left.
There was much hype over two of the best safeties in the NFL — the Ravens' Ed Reed and Steelers' Troy Polamalu. On Sunday, it was Polamalu with the bigger day, picking up an interception that essentially sealed a spot in the Super Bowl. With the Ravens down 16-14 late in the fourth and facing third down, Polamalu stepped in front of a Joe Flacco pass for a leaping interception. He then scampered for a 40-yard touchdown.
The Ravens' first touchdown was set up late in the second quarter by a questionable pass-interference penalty near the goal line against Steelers DB Bryant McFadden, who broke up a pass to Derrick Mason (Ravens RB Willis McGahee scored on a 3-yard run one play later). A few minutes later, the Steelers had a call go their way when Ravens TE Edgar Jones was called for a personal foul after "roughing" Steelers P Mitch Berger. Jones, who dived to block the punt near midfield, barely touched the left foot of Berger, who flopped to draw the flag.
Plays worth another look: Holmes denied
It's rare when both coaches throw the red challenge flag on the same play. But that happened in the first quarter, when another catch by Steelers WR Santonio Holmes became the subject of controversy. Remember, in the last Ravens-Steelers matchup, it was Holmes' winning touchdown grab that was unsuccessfully challenged by Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. This time, Holmes made a 23-yard completion in the first quarter, diving forward to put the ball over the goal line (but it was spotted at the Ravens 1). Steelers coach Mike Tomlin challenged the call, thinking it was a touchdown. Harbaugh challenged, arguing it was an incomplete pass because the ball bounced out of Holmes' hands when it hit the turf. In the end, Harbaugh won: The catch was ruled incomplete, and the Steelers settled for a field goal. But Holmes had the last laugh, scoring a 65-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
The Steelers, then up 13-7, came close to delivering a dagger in the final minute of the first half. Speedy rookie WR Limas Sweed, left, filling in for injured Hines Ward, burned Ravens third-string CB Evan Oglesby on a stop-and-go route deep down the left sideline. QB Ben Roethlisberger delivered a perfect pass to a wide-open Sweed, who was inside the 10. But Sweed dropped the ball then dropped facefirst to the ground in the end zone, apparently hurt. Sweed somewhat redeemed himself a few plays later with a helmet-rattling block to knock CB Corey Ivy out of the game. But the Steelers failed to score on the drive when Roethlisberger couldn't snap the ball before time ran out.
Hines' helping hands
Steelers WR Hines Ward might have hurt his right knee in the first quarter, but that didn't stop the gritty veteran from making an impact. Ward had a 45-yard reception on Pittsburgh's opening drive that helped set up a 34-yard field goal. And on the play Ward got hurt, he came up with an 11-yard catch on third and 10 to the Ravens 24, keeping the drive alive for a 42-yard field goal by K Jeff Reed. Ward left the game but returned. He has caught a pass in 13 straight postseason games and is just the second Steeler wideout to rack up more than 1,000 career postseason receiving yards (joining Hall of Famer John Stallworth, who had 1,054).
With CB Samari Rolle deactivated with a groin injury, the Ravens secondary was already thin. Then his replacement, Frank Walker, left in the second quarter with an injury. A few minutes later, CB Corey Ivy was knocked out of the game on a helmet-rattling hit from Steelers rookie WR Limas Sweed. So by the end of the first half, the Ravens had to use rookie S Haruki Nakamura at corner. With the lack of healthy corners, it became more of a risk for the Ravens to continue their aggressive blitzing.
Neither snow nor chilly temperatures (20-plus degrees) stopped bundled-up Steelers fans, who lined up 20-30 deep three hours before kickoff to get into popular bars such as Jerome Bettis Grille 36. A few stood on the streets a few blocks from Heinz Field with an interesting request: "I need parking passes."
Ravens K Matt Stover spent plenty of time practicing long-distance field goals in warmups. He had a reason, because in the previous two meetings between the Ravens and Steelers, Stover and Pittsburgh K Jeff Reed combined for 35 of the 65 points.
Country music star Hank Williams Jr., below, a longtime Steelers fan, got the Heinz Field crowd charged up before Martina McBride sang the national anthem. Williams has said his Steelers roots are from birth — he was born in the same Louisiana hospital as Terry Bradshaw. "He was an underdog, and so was I," Williams told steelers.com.
It was bound to happen sometime. Ravens rookie QB Joe Flacco hadn't thrown an interception in two playoff games, partly because of some conservative play-calling. But the Ravens surprisingly came out firing Sunday (seven passes in their first nine plays, many from no-huddle), and Flacco was intercepted by DB Deshea Townsend. The interception, Flacco's first in 99 attempts, led to a 42-yard field goal by Jeff Reed. Steelers S Troy Polamalu picked off Flacco late in the fourth quarter, returning it 40 yards for a touchdown. And S Tyrone Carter sealed the victory on another interception with about a minute left.
By the numbers
98 Playoff passes before Ravens rookie QB Joe Flacco threw his first interception (first quarter Sunday).
12-1 Record when the Ravens lost the coin toss this season (they won Sunday).
0 Times the Ravens have given up more than 10 points in a playoff win.