PITTSBURGH — In a bone-jarring battle of the NFL's top defenses, the Steelers flexed their Iron City muscle in a 23-14 victory Sunday over the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game to earn a trip to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.
Troy Polamalu's 40-yard interception return with 4:24 left iced it, pumping up the Heinz Field record crowd of 65,350.
The Steelers earned their seventh trip to the Super Bowl and will face the Cardinals on Feb. 1 at Raymond James Stadium with hopes of winning their record sixth.
"We're going to play it how we see it," owner Dan Rooney said. "We're going into Tampa with the idea of playing well and having fun."
The Steelers punched their ticket by completing a three-game sweep of their bitter North Division rivals, who fought back from a 13-0 deficit.
"You don't want to see the Baltimore Ravens celebrating on your field," said cornerback Deshea Townsend, who had the first of three interceptions of rookie Joe Flacco. "I told the guys at the end of (last) week: Let's do whatever it takes to win this game."
That entailed harassing the previously unflappable Flacco, who was 13-of-30 for 141 yards and was sacked three times.
"I'm not going to take anything from him. But every time we played him, we caused him to make mistakes and got interceptions or we caused fumbles," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "I know what kind of team that we had and what kind of defense that we had."
The defense also made two big stops late in the first quarter, holding on third and 1 and fourth and 1 from its 34. And it held the Ravens to 73 rushing yards, 60 by Willis McGahee, who scored on two short runs.
But in the end, McGahee himself couldn't stay in the game. After Polamalu's touchdown, McGahee absorbed a brutal blow to the head by Ryan Clark after catching a short pass over the middle. McGahee was taken off the field on a cart but later was reported to be alert and to have movement in his limbs.
"I said a prayer for Willis McGahee because that, by far, had to be the most deadly hit I've ever seen. When Ryan Clark hit him, I thought he was dead," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "And that's the type of matchup that it's always going to be. You never know with Baltimore and Pittsburgh who the guy is going to be."
Ward also was hurt. After a first-quarter catch, a Raven rolled over his right knee. Earlier, his 45-yard catch set up Jeff Reed's 34-yard field goal that made it 3-0.
Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger finished 16-of-33 for 255 yards and no interceptions, though the Ravens' aggressive defense sacked him four times.
"You've got to give them credit," he said. "They're a hard-hitting football team."
And a stunned one.
"I think we are all still a little shocked," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who played despite a sprained right shoulder; "just disappointed."
Still, first-year coach John Harbaugh tried to sound an upbeat note, relaying what he told his team in the aftermath: "It was basically how proud I was and we are to stand with them and next to them in both victory and defeat. This is not an ending by any stretch for the players in that room."
On the contrary, it was the continuation of the grueling, hard-hitting series between Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
"It's always nasty," Townsend said. "I've been here 11 years, and it's been that way all 11 of them. It's just a part of the game. And when there's something at stake like the Super Bowl, it's going to be physical."