PITTSBURGH — Inside the jubilant Pittsburgh locker room Sunday night, players basked in the glow of a victory that erased unpleasant memories in the franchise's past AFC title games at Heinz Field — and set up the chance to make history.
The Steelers' 23-14 triumph over Baltimore not only vaulted the team into Super Bowl XLIII against Arizona on Feb. 1 in Tampa but reversed a recent trend of misfortune in the showdown for the AFC crown.
In their most recent title game appearance at home, the Steelers faced New England in 2004 and were soundly defeated, 41-27. In fact, the Steelers came into Sunday 6-7 in AFC Championship Games, including 4-5 at home and 0-2 at Heinz Field, where they have played since 2001. Now the numbers have a better ring: 7-7 overall, 5-5 at home.
"I'm very happy because I know Pittsburgh fans as of late have been a little let down by home AFC Championship Games," tackle Max Starks said. "I was a part of one of those my rookie year in '04 when New England celebrated on our field. And it was a sickening feeling. We did not want Baltimore celebrating on our field. So we just put it all out there and said, 'We're not going to let it happen.' "
They didn't, with the help of a stifling effort befitting the team's No. 1 defensive ranking in the NFL and another steady effort by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (16-of-33 for 255 yards and a 65-yard touchdown to Santonio Holmes).
"There is a great deal of emotion (in the locker room) right now; a sense of accomplishment," coach Mike Tomlin said after the game.
"It was a tough battle … just like it always is when the Steelers play the Ravens," he added. "I tip my hat off to that group; their players, coaches and administrators. They bring the best out in us. … That is part of the reason that we are who we are; iron makes iron sharper."
For the Ravens, there was little consolation in coming close or in having lost three cliffhanger games to the Steelers this season. "Close only counts in horseshoes," linebacker Bart Scott said.
One play might have been the difference. With 7:00 left, Baltimore trailed 16-14. The defense had forced the Steelers to punt and Jim Leonhard returned it 11 yards to his 39. But a roughness penalty on the return against Baltimore's Daren Stone moved the ball back to the 14.
Five plays later, Joe Flacco's short pass intended for Derrick Mason was picked off by safety Troy Polamalu and returned 40 yards for a touchdown that sealed the deal.
The next goal: a sixth Super Bowl win that would give Pittsburgh one more than Dallas and San Francisco.
"We're proud to be tied for the most with two other teams," Starks said. "But it's time to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack."