PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) – After a week’s worth of build up and hype, the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens faced off over at Heinz Field in a highly-anticipated playoff showdown Saturday.
It took a second half comeback, but the Steelers managed a 31-24 victory over the rival Ravens to advance to their fifth AFC championship game in 10 seasons next Sunday.
Trailing 21-7 at halftime after turnovers created two touchdowns by the Ravens; the Steelers turned things around, and came back with the help of three Baltimore turnovers in the third quarter.
Baltimore was outgained 263-126 and Joe Flacco was 16 of 30 for 125 yards as the Ravens became the eighth team in NFL playoff history to fail to gain at least 100 yards in the first three quarters. All eight teams lost.
Ben Roethlisberger went 19 of 32 for 226 yards as he beat the Ravens for the seventh successive time in a rivalry in which both teams had won twice by three-point margins during the last two seasons. The asterisk: Roethlisberger didn’t play in either Steelers loss.
During a penalty-filled first quarter, each team took advantage of a long pass interference penalty to score.
Josh Wilson’s 37-yard penalty for yanking on Mike Wallace led to Mendenhall’s 1-yard touchdown run on the Steelers’ first possession.
On a third-and-15 play, Steelers backup Anthony Madison’s 33-yard pass interference penalty set up Ray Rice’s 14-yard touchdown run up the middle to tie the score.
Then, things really got interesting.
After Roethlisberger threw incomplete on the Steelers’ first play following the kickoff, Terrell Suggs knocked the ball loose from the quarterback as he tried to get off a pass. Roethlisberger pump faked but, before he could bring his right arm forward, the ball came out.
As Suggs celebrated the apparent incompletion, the ball lay on the turf. Haloti Ngata was closest to it but no one touched it until an alert Cory Redding – realizing the whistle hadn’t blown – picked it up and ran it into the end zone from the 13.
Mendenhall fumbled on the Steelers’ subsequent possession, Ed Reed recovered and Flacco threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Todd Heap. The Ravens were making it look easy in a rivalry in which no game is won easily. They should have known better.
With the Ravens up 21-7 at the start of the third quarter, Ryan Clark forced a rare fumble by Rice on a screen pass, and LaMarr Woodley recovered at the 23.
The play re-energized not just the Steelers, but the crowd of 64,879 black and gold faithful who had grown silent as Baltimore opened its two-touchdown lead in the first half.
Mendenhall ran for 14 yards before Roethlisberger’s nine-yard scoring pass to Heath Miller, who missed two games after sustaining a concussion on a hit by Jameel McClain during the Steelers’ 13-10 win in Baltimore last month.
Later in the quarter, Flacco overthrew tight end Heap, and Clark returned the interception 17 yards to the 25. Three plays later, Roethlisberger found Hines Ward for an eight-yard touchdown pass and it was tied at 21.
The Steelers rallied despite losing both starting tackles, Flozell Adams (illness) and Jonathan Scott (leg), forcing even more patching of an offensive line that lost its projected two tackle starters to injuries months ago.
Baltimore turned it over for the third time in nine minutes as center Matt Birk snapped the ball early to Flacco, who never got his hands on it. Defensive end Brett Keisel then recovered at the 23.
The drive stalled, but Shaun Suisham, who had missed earlier, converted a 35-yard field goal with 12:15 remaining to give the Steelers their first lead since their opening drive at 24-21.
An apparent Lardarius Webb punt return touchdown was negated by a holding penalty on Marcus Smith, but the Ravens – with only 36 yards of offense in the half to that point – tied it at 24 on Billy Cundiff’s 24-yard field goal with 3:54 remaining.
That was enough time for Roethlisberger though, who is known for excelling in fourth quarter comebacks.
The Steelers quarterback hit rookie Antonio Brown on a 58-yard pass play on third-and-19, and Mendenhall scored the game-winning touchdown from the 2 with 1:33 remaining.
The Ravens’ last chance to beat the Steelers ended when T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped Flacco’s fourth-down pass at the Steelers’ 38 with 1:03 remaining.
The AFC championship game will be played next Sunday – at New England if the Patriots beat the New York Jets, in Pittsburgh if the Jets win. The Steelers will be playing to reach the Super Bowl for third time in six seasons.
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