The hair was flying from beneath his helmet in the freezing night air, the body zigzagging past would-be tacklers and cutting across the field in a blur of black and gold. To the delirious sellout crowd inside Heinz Field, it was a familiar sight — safety Troy Polamalu surging to the rescue like some shaggy-maned super hero. In this case, No. 43 read the eyes of rookie Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco perfectly, cut in front of the third-down pass intended for Derrick Mason at the 40, and made the play Sunday that ultimately launched the Steelers to a 23-14 victory and into Super Bowl XLIII.
"When you have a great pass rush, then the defense allows you to freelance in a way," he said an hour later. "A lot of times it doesn't work. I can tell you a lot of times during the season where I messed up plays."
This time, all he messed up was the Ravens' dream of a second Super Bowl. And it was vintage Polamalu.
The five-time Pro Bowl player made the pick — his career-high eighth of the season — and first raced toward the left sideline. Then he curled back inside, hit the brakes at about the 25 as three Ravens converged on him, changed direction across the field, raced toward the right sideline around a block by cornerback Ike Taylor and sprinted down the sideline with seven Ravens chasing helplessly as he crossed the 10.
Flacco had a shot at the 5, but defensive end Aaron Smith blocked the quarterback out of bounds and Polamalu burst past a cluster of defenders at the goal line for the 40-yard score with 4:24 left.
"Certain guys are built for those moments," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "There is no question that he is a guy who is built for those moments. That is why he is who he is as a player and as a person. It is not too big for him. He relishes (the chance) to deliver for his team under those circumstances."
Where did the moment rate on the Polamalu-meter?
"That's up there," cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "Troy's a spectacular player. He makes plays when needed and that's why he's a superstar."
Polamalu, 27, has made impact plays since high school, as an All-State football and baseball player in Oregon. He went on to star at Southern California, where he was a three-year starter and All-American.
It's also where Polamalu, of Samoan descent, said he got his last haircut (after a USC coach told him he needed one). In 2003, the Steelers selected him in the first round, trading up from the 27th spot to the 16th to take him.
Last year the Steelers signed him to the most lucrative contract in team history, a four-year deal worth $30 million with $15 million guaranteed. He is a popular fixture on the No. 1-ranked Pittsburgh defense, a fierce 5-foot-10, 207-pound player known for fooling quarterbacks in the way he disguises his coverages.
He can come near the line, faking a blitz, then drop back into coverage. Or he'll linger back, only to run full-tilt forward to apply pressure. And he often hurdles through the air into piles on run plays, as he did Sunday to help on a fourth-and-1 stop.
Polamalu played a key part in Pittsburgh's Super Bowl XL championship season three years ago. In 2006, he tied the league mark of three sacks in one game by a safety. His 2007 season was marred by a hamstring injury, limiting him to 11 games.
But he rebounded this season with interceptions in a career-high four straight games and finished fourth on the team with 87 tackles.
"Without a doubt, this is the best defense that I've ever played on," he said. "But we'll see what happens in the next game."
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has already seen enough to rate 2008 as Polamalu's best as a pro.
"I just couldn't name the amount of plays that he's cut off with his range and his diagnostic intuition in just getting to where the ball is," LeBeau told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "When the ball's breaking on him, he always shows up. If he doesn't get the guy on the ground, he sure does slow him up long enough for the posse to get there. He's invaluable to us back there."
Off the field, Polamalu maintains a low profile and is known to shy away from the spotlight. His interests include growing flowers, playing piano and spending time with his expanding family. In October, he and wife Theodora had their first child, a son named Paisios (named for a Greek Orthodox saint).
But on the field, it's a different story. Polamalu's reputation, like his long hair, just keeps growing.