Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco tied a career-high by tossing three interceptions, including an errant fourth-quarter throw returned 40 yards for a touchdown by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu that stamped out the Ravens for good. It was a brutally violent game that left McGahee overnight in the hospital for tests even though he is neurologically intact.
The turnovers were the first committed by the uncommonly poised Flacco during the entire postseason, and they proved costly to the Ravens’ cause.
The Steelers’ 23-14 victory in the AFC title game Sunday night at Heinz Field over the sixth-seeded Ravens (13-6) was characterized by an opportunistic defense and the elusiveness of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as well as Flacco’s uncharacteristic miscues. He completed just 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards with a career-low 18.2 quarterback rating.
"We’re just disappointed we’re not going to the Super Bowl," Flacco said. "We’ll move on, but we’re a little disappointed at this point."
The Ravens were left reeling in the aftermath of a devastating loss. Baltimore was swept by the Steelers with three consecutive losses to their AFC North rivals, who will play the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl.
“It hasn’t set in yet,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who recorded two sacks despite the pain of a partially dislocated right shoulder. “We’re still in shock. I think we’re all disappointed still. We came here to win, but we didn’t. They won three times. I look at it as they did what they had to do to go to the Super Bowl.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh refused to pin blame for the loss on Flacco, who hadn’t thrown an interception since tossing two last month in a loss to the Steelers.
“I’m not going to sit here and say Joe played a certain way,” Harbaugh said. “Joe went out there and competed and battled and fought hard and tried to find a way to win the football game, so I certainly have no complaints.”
The Ravens’ only touchdowns were scored by McGahee before he left the game on a crushing helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Ryan Clark late in the fourth quarter.
"No matter what you’ve achieved, no matter how hard you play, you’re going to be disappointed to lose this game," Flacco said. "This was the last game before the Super Bowl. You have to give it up to the Steelers. We’ve lost to them all three times, and I have to give them credit."
Trailing 16-14 late in the fourth quarter, Flacco committed a rare rookie mistake by making it obvious that he wanted to throw to his primary read: wide receiver Derrick Mason. Polamalu capitalized by swooping in for the interception and resembled Ravens free safety Ed Reed in how he bolted upfield for a touchdown.
"I think Troy was able to read my eyes," Flacco said. "He was able to jump over there and make a play. I didn’t see him over there until I was on the ground. You have influence as much as you can away from where you want to throw the ball. I think he was able to beat me there. He read me a little bit."
Added Mason: "Joe has to keep his head up because the guy is only going to get better. Joe’s going to lead this team to many more AFC championship games."
At his improvisational best, Roethlisberger bought himself time by dodging pass rushers before stepping up in the pocket and lobbed a 65-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes earlier in the game.
Fabian Washington fell down on the play, and Holmes reversed field and cut back to reach the end zone.
His score boosted the Steelers’ lead to 13-0.
Using the no-huddle offense, the Ravens went on a long drive that marched them 13 plays and got them down to the Steelers’ 39-yard line. However, Flacco was sacked by defensive end Aaron Smith to halt the drive that began at the Ravens’ 12-yard line.
On their next possession, the Ravens finally issued a rebuttal to the Steelers’ convincing first-half argument about who should represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Strong safety Jim Leonhard ripped off a 45-yard punt return down to the Steelers’ 17-yard line before being tackled by punter Mitch Berger, actually fumbling for the second time. It rolled out of bounds, though.
The Steelers were up in arms when cornerback Bryant McFadden was flagged for pass interference when he tangled with wide receiver Derrick Mason in the end zone for an automatic first down.
On the next play, McGahee busted into the end zone untouched for a three-yard touchdown run to get the Ravens on the scoreboard and cut the Steelers lead down to 13-7.
Outside linebacker Edgar Jones drew a roughing the kicker penalty when he landed in the vicinity of punter Mitch Berger’s plant leg, giving the Steelers a first down at the Ravens’ 35-yad line with 47 seconds remaining in the first half. It was a nice job of acting by Berger to overemphasize the fall to get the officials’ attention for the penalty.
Toward the end of the first half, Steelers rookie wide receiver Limas Sweed badly beat cornerback Evan Oglesby as he bit on Roethlisberger’s pump fake. However, Sweed committed a huge gaffe when he allowed a perfectly thrown spiral to glance off his outstretched hands.
He left the field with an undisclosed injury, perhaps a bruised ego.
Sweed would return, though, and he delivered the biggest hit of an uncommonly brutal game by cracking back on Ravens cornerback Corey Ivy to spring tight end Heath Miller for a 14-yard reception down to the Ravens’ 35-yard line.
However, the Steelers’ drive stalled as Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians curiously opted to have Roethlisberger throw over the middle to running back Mewelde Moore with 16 seconds remaining.
Inside linebacker Bart Scott tackled Moore at the Ravens’ 12-yard line. The Steelers frantically tried to spike the football, but the clock ran out to end the first half.
In the first half, Flacco completed just 3 of 14 passes for 39 yards, no touchdowns and one interception for a putrid 9.8 quarterback rating.
Conversely, Roethlisberger effectively completed 11 of 24 passes for 188 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for an 86.8 rating.
The Ravens converted just 2 of 8 third downs, mustering only 74 yards of total offense to the Steelers’ 208 yards.
The primary bright spot offensively was McGahee’s 60 rushing yards.
Pro Bowl fullback Le’Ron McClain didn’t have a carry in the first half due to a sprained ankle and finished with one rush for three yards while the Ravens stuffed Steelers running back Willie Parker, who lost a fumble on a big hit by middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
However, the Ravens didn’t produce a first down until the second quarter.
Bad omens started cropping up immediately for the Ravens in the first quarter.
Roethlisberger connected with Hines Ward over the middle for a 45-yard gain, the majority of it gained after the catch when Reed missed a tackle after he seemed to bunch up with Leonhard. He was finally dragged down by middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
The Steelers took advantage of the coverage lapse, getting on the scoreboard four plays later when kicker Jeff Reed nailed a 32-yard field goal.
Then, Flacco did something out of character.
He threw his first interception in a month when he stared at Mason and was picked off by cornerback Deshea Townsend at the Ravens’ 35-yard line.
It was a bad decision on Flacco’s part, a mistake that he normally doesn’t commit.
An uncanny scenario of déjà vu unfolded on the Steelers’ ensuing drive when Holmes dove for an apparent 23-yard completion down to the Ravens’ 1-yard line.
Unlike the controversial game-winning touchdown Holmes scored in the Ravens’ 13-9 loss to the Steelers in Baltimore last month when it was debatable if the football broke the plane of the end zone and referee Walt Coleman overruled the initial call, the Ravens got their way this time.
The Ravens called for an instant-replay challenge, and referee Bill Carollo determined that Holmes lost possession of the ball when he went to the ground.
Roethlisberger threw incomplete on 3rd-and-10, and the Steelers had to settle for a 42-yard Reed field goal that staked them to a 6-0 lead.
The Ravens were unable to capitalize when Lewis ripped the football out of the hands of a timid-running Parker and Leonhard pounced on the fumble.
In a questionable piece of strategy on 4th-and-1 at the Steelers’ 34-yard line, the Ravens opted to have Flacco execute a quarterback sneak up the middle out of an empty backfield.
Hefty nose guard Casey Hampton got a tremendous charge up the middle against center Jason Brown, and Polamalu made an acrobatic dive over the top to corral Flacco. The referees called for the measuring sticks, but it wasn’t even close.
Nonetheless, the Ravens’ dramatic turnaround from a 5-1 1 season to engineer a run deep into the playoffs offers encouragement for the future.
“I think we started something good here,” Suggs said. “We got to the AFC championship. That’s a good start."
Harbaugh’s message to the players in the locker room centered on the future, not dwelling on another bitter setback to the Steelers.
"It was basically how proud I was to stand with them in both victory and defeat," Harbaugh said. "This is our beginning. This is not an ending by any stretch for the players in that room. We look forward so we can’t wait to take the next step."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.