- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

PITTSBURGH | The Pittsburgh Steelers finally made Joe Flacco look like a rookie.

The Steelers’ top-ranked defense picked off the Baltimore Ravens quarterback three times and sacked him three times, and Ben Roethlisberger connected on a series of big passes as Pittsburgh won the AFC championship game 23-14 on Sunday night at chilly but raucous Heinz Field.

The victory, the Steelers’ third in three games with the Ravens this season and their first in four conference title games at home dating to 1997, puts them in Super Bowl XLIII against the NFC champion Arizona Cardinals on Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla.

“The fun thing about playing Baltimore is we’re not playing their offense,” said Steelers safety Ryan Clark, whose fourth-quarter hit on Willis McGahee sent the running back off on a stretcher and to a Pittsburgh hospital. “We’re playing [Ravens defenders] Ed Reed, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. This was going to be this kind of game. What you saw was the guys in black jerseys delivering those hits more than the guys in white.”

Willie Parker, whose legs carried the Steelers past the Chargers in the divisional round, managed just 47 yards on 24 carries and lost a fumble when Lewis knocked the ball out and safety Jim Leonhard recovered for the Ravens. The lack of a rushing game didn’t matter; Roethlisberger finished 16-for-33 for 255 yards and a touchdown (84.8 rating) against Baltimore’s second-ranked defense. Flacco was 13-for-30 for 141 yards (an 18.2 rating).

Roethlisberger, who led the Steelers to the title three years ago in just his second season, completed clutch throws of 45 yards and 11 yards (on third-and-10) to Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward to set up Jeff Reed’s two first-quarter field goals from 34 and 42 yards.

The winner of an NFL-record 51 games in his first five seasons, Roethlisberger then deftly avoided the pass rush and lofted a floater to receiver Santonio Holmes, who beat cornerback Fabian Washington, cut across the field and outran the rest of the Baltimore defense for a 65-yard touchdown that made it 13-0 just 1:02 into the second quarter.

“I kind of felt he was throwing the ball away,” Holmes said. “I got lazy and let the defender feel like the ball was going to be thrown out of bounds. When I saw it short, I reacted to the ball quicker than he did.”

The Ravens finally scored a few possessions later. Leonhard’s 45-yard punt return and an interference call on cornerback Bryant McFadden set up McGahee’s 3-yard touchdown that drew the visitors within 13-7 with 2:40 left in the half.

The Steelers went back up two scores with 3:38 to go in the third quarter. Roethlisberger threw passes of 20 yards to fullback Carey Davis and 30 to tight end Heath Miller to set up Jeff Reed’s third field goal, a 46-yarder.

“Ben’s a special player,” Miller said. “When he’s moving, you never give up on the play. If you’re able to get in his vision, he’s going to get you the ball.”

Down 16-7, Flacco didn’t give up, finding favorite receiver Derrick Mason for consecutive first downs before an interference penalty on cornerback Ike Taylor set up McGahee’s 1-yard touchdown run that cut the margin to 16-14 with 9:29 remaining.

But Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu sealed the victory, picking off Flacco’s pass for Mason and returning it 40 yards for a touchdown with 4:24 left. Flacco said Polamalu read his eyes and made the kind of big play the Ravens’ Ed Reed and Leonhard had in sixth-seeded Baltimore’s upsets the previous two weekends at Miami and Tennessee.

“If they don’t make [that] play, we win the game,” said Suggs, who had two sacks after not practicing all week because of a serious shoulder injury. “But I take my hat off to them. They played consistent all year, and now they get the rewards.”

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