- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

PITTSBURGH.

Watching the Steelers and Ravens bang helmets is like watching two brothers brawl. They both have the same approach to the game — hit first and ask questions later — and they’ve both had a lot of success with that style. When they meet, it’s just a question of who has more chest hair on that particular day. Forget about finesse and subtlety; they’re on the inactive list.

The first two times they faced each other this season, the chest-hair count was particularly close. The Steelers won both, 23-20 (in overtime) and 13-9, but the outcomes easily could have been different. So there was much hope in Baltimore about Sunday’s AFC title game. Maybe the Ravens would win Act 3 and go to their second Super Bowl.

You can only go so far, though, with an offense that’s hard-pressed to get a first down and can’t stay on the field long enough to give its all-world defense a blow. Joe Flacco, Baltimore’s rookie quarterback, may have many fine Januarys ahead of him, but for the moment he’s no match for Ben Roethlisberger.

And that, really, was what separated the two clubs in Pittsburgh’s 23-14 victory at wintry Heinz Field. Big Ben was able to sidestep the relentless Ravens rush and make plays downfield, and his younger opponent wasn’t. It came down to quarterbacks, as it so often does, and the Steelers’ was/is simply better.

“Ben’s a special guy,” said Mike Tomlin, who has proved to be rather special himself by turning out a Super Bowl team in just his second season as a head coach. “He’s at his best in the midst of the most difficult adversity. He recognized the magnitude of this game and … was what his team needed him to be.”

The festivities were only three plays old when Roethlisberger fired to Hines Ward for a 45-yard catch-and-run to the Baltimore 23. That, as Nuke LaLoosh would say, is announcing your presence with authority (though it resulted in only three points). Later in the first half, No. 7 danced around in the pocket and floated a pass to Santonio Holmes that Holmes’ fast feet turned into a 65-yard touchdown and a 13-0 lead.

Ray Lewis and Co. are very good at bending, as they showed in their upset win the week before at Tennessee, but they don’t often rupture like that. You had to wonder whether that breakdown — and an interception thrown earlier by Flacco, which led to a field goal — would be their undoing.

Still, this was a conference championship game, and there figured to be blunders on both sides. And sure enough, the Steelers helped the Ravens creep closer before the half by giving up a 45-yard punt return to Jim Leonhard and compounding the felony by getting called for pass interference. That handed Baltimore a TD, which came on a 3-yard run by Willis McGahee.

In the end, though, the gap between the two quarterbacks was just too large. Ever since his infamous motorcycle accident three years ago after winning the Super Bowl — the one in which he was helmetless — there has been concern he would never become the QB he seemed destined to be. He just didn’t appear to be getting any better; in fact, this season, he looked to be going the other way.

But he stood up to everything the Ravens threw at him Sunday and had easily the best game he’s had against them all season. And he did it, mind you, despite losing his favorite receiver, Ward, to a knee injury in the early going — and having only a hint of a running game to keep Baltimore’s bruisers honest. In addition to the 65-yarder to Holmes and the 45-yarder to Hines, he had a 30-yarder to tight end Heath Miller and would have had a 50-yard score to Limas Sweed had the latter not dropped the ball.

In other words, Big Ben was making the Baltimore defense bleed in a way it rarely does. He was taking his licks — four sacks and assorted other indignities — and getting back up returning the favor. And now, at 26, he’s about to play in his second Super Bowl. How many quarterbacks have done so much so soon?

His back still hurt, he said afterward, from a blindsiding late in the first half. “Winning takes away a lot of the pain, though. It’s always that way [when the Steelers and Ravens play]. It’s a 12-round slugfest. It’s violent from start to finish.”

Roethlisberger’s first AFC title game, after the ‘05 season, went as badly as Flacco’s — three interceptions, one run back for a touchdown, in a 41-27 home loss to the Patriots. Presumably, somebody in Ravensland will point that out to Joe in the coming days to boost his spirits. His rookie season, after all, was one heck of a ride. He helped his club get within a game of Tampa.

And in the fourth quarter Sunday, he helped his club get within two points of the Steelers by digging the offense out of a first-and-20 hole and leading a 58-yard drive that ended with another short McGahee TD run. Yes, in the end, it was another Steelers-Ravens White Knuckle Special.

“They bring the best out of us,” Tomlin said. “We have so much respect for them. They’re part of the reason we are who we are — because iron makes iron sharp.”

And once again, Pittsburgh pulled through, Troy Polamalu icing it with an interception return for a score with 4:24 left. The Ravens, meanwhile, went home wondering what it’s going to take to beat this team, this team that’s so much like them.

A quarterback like Roethlisberger, no doubt.

Or maybe just a 26-year-old Joe Flacco. Either will do.