Steelers top Ravens, look to Super Bowl
If Santonio Holmes does not stop tormenting the Ravens, he may well snatch the title of most disliked Steelers wide receiver in Baltimore from Hines Ward. Not that Baltimore fans are too happy with Troy Polamalu today, either.
Holmes caught a 65-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter of Sunday's AFC Championship Game to give the Steelers an early double-digit lead, and Polamalu ended the Ravens' upset bid by returning an interception for a touchdown.
As result of the Steelers' 23-14 win over the Ravens in front of a record crowd of 65,350 at rollicking Heinz Field, they are advancing to Super Bowl XLIII with a chance to make some serious history.
"We've got a special group in there," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I told that group we have miles to go before we sleep. A little Robert Frost."
If the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals on Feb. 1 in Tampa, they will become the first team to win six Super Bowls. A victory in the final game of the NFL season also would make Tomlin the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl.
The Steelers (14-4) snapped a three-game losing streak in AFC Championship games in Pittsburgh, though the evening was not without its tense moments.
Dropped passes, poor clock management and shanked punts might have doomed the Steelers to another upset loss in an AFC title game at home. But they were able to overcome those mistakes because of another rock-solid performance by their defense, Jeff Reed's steady right leg and Holmes' touchdown, which gave the Steelers a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter and turned out to be the longest play of the game.
An offense coming off its best performance of the season scuffled against the Ravens (13-6). The Steelers couldn't run the ball -- Willie Parker managed just 47 yards on 24 carries -- and they had to play the final three quarters without Hines Ward after the veteran wide receiver left the game with a sprained knee. Ward is scheduled to have an MRI today, but said there is "no way" he will missing playing in the Super Bowl.
The defense proved up to the task of protecting the double-digit lead that the Steelers took in the second quarter.
The Steelers, however, could not shake the Ravens, who got two touchdown runs from Willis McGahee. One of those came with 9:29 left in the game, and it allowed Baltimore to pull within two points of the Steelers.
The Ravens forced a punt, but Polamalu intercepted rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and weaved his way to the end zone for the game-clinching score. Afterward, free safety Ryan Clark said Polamalu is the best safety in the NFL.
"No disrespect to those guys," Clark said of players such as Ravens safety Ed Reed, "all All-Pros, all at the top of their game. I want Troy."
Clark was involved in perhaps the scariest play of the game, and it came after Polamalu's 40-yard interception return. He and McGahee collided on a pass play and the latter had to be taken off the field on a stretcher because of a neck injury.
The Steelers dominated the first half but they only led 13-7 at intermission as the first two quarters were marked by missed opportunities as much as anything for the home team.
Reed kicked a couple of field goals in the first half to give the Steelers a 6-0 lead. The Steelers then looked like they are off and running after Holmes' 65-yard catch-and-run early in the second quarter produced the first touchdown of the game.
But the Ravens parlayed a 45-yard punt return by Jim Leonhard late in the second quarter and turned a pass interference call on Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden near the end zone into a 3-yard touchdown run by McGahee.
The Steelers had several chances to answer with at least a field goal before the half.
A 25-yard punt return by Holmes set the Steelers up at midfield with one minute left in the second quarter, and on the next play quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw what looked like a sure touchdown pass to Limas Sweed.
Sweed had broken free down the left sideline, but the rookie wide receiver dropped a perfectly thrown pass.