On a cold, snowy night, the sun finally shone on the Steelers in a championship game at Heinz Field. Safety Troy Polamalu ended a rolling Baltimore comeback when he intercepted a pass by rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown with 4:34 left to secure the Steelers' 23-14 victory against the Baltimore Ravens.
The victory, their first in a championship game on their third try at Heinz Field, lifted the Steelers into their seventh Super Bowl and provides them with a chance to become the first team to win six. Their seven AFC championships are a record.
Their victory set off a jubilant celebration at 8-year-old Heinz Field, where the Lamar Hunt Trophy was presented to Dan Rooney and his son and team president Art Rooney, coach Mike Tomlin and his players before a home crowd for the first time in 13 years.
Tomlin is the first Steelers coach to reach a Super Bowl in his second season.
The Steelers play against an unlikely opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, in Super Bowl XLIII at 6 p.m. Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla. The Cardinals, often called "Pittsburgh West" because of their many connections to the city and the Steelers, will play in their first Super Bowl.
"We didn't start this journey to get to Tampa," Tomlin said on the field after the game to loud cheers from fans, most of whom stuck around for the trophy presentation and broke out in Steelers fight songs.
"We are excited about being in the Super Bowl. We look forward to getting down there and pursuing our ultimate goals."
Before Polamalu's touchdown, that record crowd of 65,350 watched anxiously as the Ravens moved from their 12 to a first down at their 32, needing only a field goal to win.
Flacco's pass was intended for Derrick Mason. It came from the Baltimore 29 after linebacker LaMarr Woodley's second sack of the game and it came as linebacker James Harrison hit Flacco. As a result, the ball did not come close to its target. Polamalu, the five-time Pro Bowl safety with seven interceptions in the regular season, caught the ball and then weaved to his right, moving through traffic. As he neared the end zone, he held the ball aloft in both hands as if offering it up to the gods.
"That's Troy," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He comes out of nowhere. When Troy runs with the ball, you never know what will happen. I was just happy that he scored."
The Steelers never trailed, but the Ravens kept it close after falling behind, 13-0, in the second quarter, and the Steelers helped them with some mental and physical mistakes.
Jeff Reed kicked two of his three field goals -- from 34 and 42 yards -- in the first quarter and Santonio Holmes turned a short pass into a 65-yard scoring play for that Steelers lead. However, Willis McGahee scored on a 3-yard run near the end of the half to make it 13-7.
Reed's 46-yard, third-quarter field goal stretched the lead to 16-7, but the Ravens closed the gap to 16-14 on McGahee's second touchdown, from the 1, with 9:29 left. McGahee later was carted off with what appeared to be a concussion after a hit by Ryan Clark. He spent last night in a hospital.
Roethlisberger completed 16 of 33 passes for 255 yards with that touchdown to Holmes and no interceptions. Flacco threw three interceptions on his way to completing just 13 of 30 for 141 yards and a passer rating of just 18.2.
Neither team had much luck running the football. The Steelers managed only 52 yards on 28 carries, while Baltimore had 73 on 25.
The Steelers jumped out quickly and then held off the Ravens until Polamalu's late knockout blow. Hines Ward, who left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury, caught a 45-yard pass on the opening drive that carried to the Baltimore 23, but the Steelers settled for Reed's 34-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Reed made it two field goals on the first three drives when he kicked one from 42 yards with 6:11 to go in the first quarter for a 6-0 lead after a Deshea Townsend interception.
The Steelers, though, blew two big chances to go on top by 10 points on that series. Willie Parker broke wide open on a pass route at the 17 and dropped Roethlisberger's pass. Then, from the 24, Roethlisberger threw a perfect pass to Holmes at the 2. It was ruled a catch but after Ravens coach John Harbaugh challenged the play, it was overturned to an incomplete pass.
Parker later fumbled at his 43 but the Steelers defense rose to snuff the Ravens on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1. The Steelers took over at their 34 and three plays later it was 13-0.
Roethlisberger stepped up and away from pressure on third down, moved to his left, and floated a pass to his right. Cornerback Fabian Washington, on the outside of Holmes, slipped as Holmes caught the pass to the inside at Baltimore's 47.
"When I saw it short, I reacted to the ball quicker than he did and I had a group of guys that were running with me," Holmes said.
Holmes made his way to the left, then raced down the sideline and jumped for the pylon at the front of the end zone for a 65-yard score.
Roethlisberger said he was about to throw the ball away when he spotted Holmes.
"I just threw it where he could make a play," Roethlisberger said. "You get him the ball, he'll do the rest."
The Ravens caught some lightning near the end of the half to keep it from being an early runaway. Jim Leonhard returned a punt 45 yards to the Steelers' 17. On third down from the 16, cornerback Bryant McFadden was flagged for pass interference against Mason at the 3. McGahee then scored standing up to pull the Ravens to within 13-7 with 2:40 left in the half.
And mistakes by the Steelers -- physical and mental -- just kept coming.
Steelers rookie receiver Limas Sweed dropped what would have been a 50-yard touchdown pass at the 10 when he was wide open with just under a minute left in the first half. He then rolled around as if injured, costing the Steelers a precious time out, their last of the half.
"I wish he'd just catch the football," Tomlin said. "That's all part of growing up."
The Steelers quickly moved to a first down at the 21, but with 16 seconds to go, Roethlisberger threw from the shotgun over the middle to Mewelde Moore. He was tackled at the 12 and before the Steelers could line up and spike the ball to stop the clock time ran out and so did the Steelers' chances to kick a field goal.
"I accept responsibility for that," Tomlin said.
Reed, though, did get his third field goal and it was a big one, from 46 yards with 3:38 left in the third quarter. It put the Steelers up by two scores, 16-7.
Two key pass completions salvaged that 51-yard drive. The first was a 20-yard catch over the middle by Carey Davis on third down. The other was a 30-yard catch by Heath Miller on second-and-24.
Mistakes, though, continued to dog the Steelers.
Berger struck again when he shanked a low punt 21 yards to give Baltimore a first down at its 42. After a James Harrison sack, Mason caught a 14-yard pass against cornerback Ike Taylor.
The Ravens moved to a first down at the 24. Two plays later, Taylor was called for pass interference against Marcus Smith in the end zone, giving the Ravens a first down at the 1. McGahee ran around right end for his second touchdown and Baltimore was within two points with 9:29 left.
Polamalu's interception and weaving return for a touchdown put an end to that comeback and earned the Steelers their ticket to the Super Bowl.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published January 19, 2009 5:15 AM