No doubt anymore about which defense is the best in the NFL, is there?
It's the Steelers' defense by knockout.
The Steelers "D" turned out the lights on the Baltimore Ravens' season last night in the AFC championship game, clearly outplaying the Ravens' heavily hyped defense in a 23-14 win that sent the home team on to Tampa, Fla., for Super Bowl XLIII and a Feb. 1 meeting with old pal Ken Whisenhunt and his Arizona Cardinals.
That proud defense, which has carried the Steelers all season, had to be terrific in this game. Not so much because the Ravens' offense and overmatched rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, were such a big threat. They most certainly were not. No, the defense had to play a brilliant game to overcome a dropped touchdown pass by Steelers wide receiver Limas Sweed and a miscalculation with the game clock by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that cost the Steelers serious points.
Thank goodness for that defense.
It seems appropriate that Steelers safety Troy Polamalu all but officially ended things and had the juiced crowd dancing in the Heinz Field stands, signing, "Pittsburgh's going to the Super Bowl ... " All week, Polamalu had listened to a lot of people in Baltimore and even here -- OK, I confess -- talk about how Ravens All-World safety Ed Reed is a better player. His response, understated verbally as usual, was a sensational on-field performance that was highlighted by his interception and 40-yard touchdown return with 4:24 left.
Even the great Reed had to be in awe of that one.
It's just unfortunate the game couldn't have ended right then. On the Ravens' next possession, running back Willis McGahee caught a pass over the middle and took a brutal hit from Steelers safety Ryan Clark. McGahee stayed motionless on the turf for several minutes before being carted to the locker room with what Ravens officials described as "severe neck" pain.
It was a sad ending to a fabulous football game.
Flacco was no match for that Steelers defense. After not throwing an interception or being sacked in the Ravens' playoff wins against the Tennessee Titans and Miami Dolphins, the Steelers picked him three times and sacked him thrice. An interception by cornerback Deshea Townsend in the first half set up a Steelers field goal. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley had two of the three sacks.
Flacco's final numbers: 13 of 30 for 141 yards with three interceptions and an 18.2 passer rating.
The Steelers needed all of that strong performance because of a couple of self-inflicted wounds.
They started with Sweed's dropped touchdown pass late in the first half. He was wide open behind the Ravens' defense, but the ball clanged off his hands at the Baltimore 10. A touchdown there would have made it 20-7 Steelers.
The Steelers still had a chance to add to their 13-7 lead at halftime, but Roethlisberger lost track of the time and/or timeouts. With no timeouts left, he completed a 9-yard pass to running back Mewelde Moore over the middle to the Ravens' 12, but couldn't get his team to the line in time to spike the ball before the clock ran out.
It didn't matter.
The Steelers' defense made sure of it.
Fittingly, Polamalu made sure yet another Super Bowl is in the Steelers' immediate future.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .